The opening scene of Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck looks and sounds like the exact situation this documentary’s title would suggest. It features what appears to be random shots from 60s American television intermingled with footage of Cobain’s early life and recordings so experimental that they wouldn’t seem out of place on a John Lennon and Yoko Ono collaboration album.
This mosaic of sights and sounds plunges the viewer deep into the psyche of the cryptic Kurt Cobain: Nirvana frontman, rock icon, and tortured genius. Instead of being a chronological start-to-finish retelling of Cobain’s life story, Montage of Heck manages to do what few other Cobain-centred books and films could: it humanises him.
So often fans and documenters focus on the despondent rock star that they neglect to consider Cobain as a son, brother, husband and father. Documentary filmmaker Brett Morgen has approached Cobain’s story with great sensitivity, tact, and, most importantly, with the support of the Cobain family.
Montage of Heck features interviews with Cobain’s sister, mother, father and stepmother, along with in-depth commentary from ex-girlfriend Tracy Marander, bandmate Krist Novoselic, and Courtney Love, his controversial widow. The film also features some of Cobain’s unreleased recordings, his artworks, journal entries and previously unseen home movies.
Montage of Heck takes an intimate and insightful look at scenes from Cobain’s life that have been dramatised with great care using artful animations. A breath of life is also given to his personal drawings with the help of animators Stefan Nadelman and Hisko Hulsing, giving the film an even more personalised feel. Nirvana’s repertoire of hits is also treated with great sensitivity and respect. One of the film’s most positive aspects is that it manages to address Nirvana’s discography without becoming “‘Smells like teen spirit’: the movie.” In fact, this song isn’t heard until well into the credits. However, Morgen syncs the music video to a haunting choral version which does the single more than justice.
The documentary is a harrowing, draining two-hour journey into the mind of one of music’s most private figures that will leave a string of teary-eyed fans in its wake. What makes Montage of Heck different from standard biographical documentaries is that it manages to paint Cobain’s character in such a way that viewers are torn between pitying the little boy in the Batman outfit whose life was torn apart by his parents’ divorce, and being exasperated by the rock star with the stonewashed jeans and strawberry-dyed hair and his contemptuous attitude towards fans and interviewers. It is this Medusa’s head of emotions that will make Montage of Heck linger in the minds of viewers, and what has made it, as Consequence of Sound’s Justin Gerber calls it, “the definitive Cobain documentary.”