‘Montage of Heck’: The Life and Death of Kurt Cobain

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Much has already been said about Montage of Heck, the new Kurt Cobain documentary from Brett Morgen, which has been applauded by many for its humanizing view of the mythologized, tragic, and often maligned Nirvana frontman. The story of his mysterious life is uniquely told through handheld home-video footage, animated reenactments, talking heads (Kurt’s mother, Courtney Love, Krist Noveselic), and montages of Kurt’s drawings spliced bizarrely with video footage of rabbits having sex, close-ups of intestines, and scenes from the 1979 film Over the Edge.

There is a kinetic energy coursing through the montages and home-videos that feels as if Morgen is trying to recreate the electricity and often over-active mind of the musical genius, jumping rapidly and randomly from these distinct images and modes of storytelling as if to suggest an understanding of how Kurt’s mind operated.

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Nirvana’s music and Kurt’s previously unreleased voice recordings play over the images throughout the entire film and serve as the most important entry point to his life. The music is the best way to try to understand the complexity of Kurt Cobain as a man and an artist. There is not enough focus though on Nirvana and its rise to stardom, the intimate and burgeoning music scenes in Olympia and Seattle, and the behind-the-scenes people in the music industry working to get more exposure for Nirvana.

The private footage of Kurt and Courtney is interesting because we get to see a different side of him, but it seems like it was video that was never meant to be seen by the public and it feels strangely invasive watching it. After their daughter Frances is born Kurt is portrayed as a very loving man and father, but a man whose addiction and fears of rejection and betrayal stole some of the love he was capable of giving and receiving. It is difficult not to cry during these joyous family scenes because there is a dread hanging over everything — knowing how it ends.

While it is a Kurt Cobain documentary and not a Nirvana documentary, the film leaves you unsettled, depressed, and no closer to understanding Kurt as anything other than a mythologized rock-star. It would be impossible to make a documentary on Kurt or Nirvana without highlighting his troubled persona, drug use, and tragic death, but ultimately, his legacy is in the music he created not his past or his private life, which is the overwhelming focus of the film and remains as mysterious and controversial as ever. Kurt would have likely agreed with this sentiment as he hated giving interviews and wished to keep his music separate from his personal life; he just wanted to play music, not explain who he was. If he were still alive he would have thought Montage of Heck to be an obscene intrusion and unnecessary commentary on his life. He would have told people to shut the movie off and to just go listen to the music.

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