Saturday, May 16, 2015

Review—Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck

I recently watched the strangely titled Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, a documentary about the life of Kurt Cobain, lead singer and guitar player of Nirvana. Dead for more than 20 years from a self-inflicted shotgun blast to the head, Cobain still elicits a great deal of interest from those who grew up listening to Nirvana and younger fans who have fallen in love with his angsty music and associated image.

And what a perfect mix for ensuring that subsequent generations of teenagers become enchanted with Cobain's story: brooding good looks, heroin addiction, early death, and some catchy tunes made more memorable because of his distinctive voice: not a skilled singer by any means, but in possession of "a sound." I can hear the outrage from those who attach great meaning to song lyrics and elevate utterly pedestrian individuals to iconic status. How dare you label his music as "catchy"!

Kurt Cobain Montage of Heck

Film-maker Brett Morgen convinced the family of Cobain to provide access to old family films, audio recordings by Cobain, Cobain's notebooks, and unseen video footage of Nirvana. Morgen also interviewed a handful of family members and some other important people from Cobain's life, most notably, Courtney Love and bandmate Krist Novoselic.

I've often wondered how various journalists win over people they want to interview. Is it because of their past work? Or are they so persistent in their wheedling that people finally give in? Or is it the image they construct of the potential final result and the angle they claim they will present? And then, once access is gained, they start the slow, project-long back-pedaling and expectations management that allows them to say at the conclusion, "Yeah, well, it hasn't turned out exactly how I said it would at the outset..."

Three Distinct Impressions

For me, three distinct impressions of Cobain emerge from this film:

—Cobain was a person of very moderate intelligence and intellect.
—Cobain was obsessively self-absorbed.
—Cobain suffered from extreme anxiety and hypersensitivity.

I'll address each one of these impressions in more detail.

First, Cobain was a person of very moderate intelligence and intellect. Of course, he never made any claims otherwise. And why would anyone expect a pop singer  to be anything else? Why, in fact, is it even necessary to highlight this observation? Simply because the implication or outright claim in such documentaries, is that the subject is a genius, and their every utterance and bodily expulsion is worthy of detailed examination and inevitable praise. The very format of this film suggests exactly that. With access to a trove of Cobain's personal journals, Morgen filmed numerous pages of those journals that contained Cobain's song lyrics, ramblings, and drawings. He intersperses shot of those journal pages throughout the film.

Now, most people recognize that song lyrics are not the stuff of deep meaning and incredible insight. Though people who spend their lives obsessing over such things would no doubt object to this claim. And of course, lyrics absent the music are even more mundane. But Cobain's writing focuses on such basic, very often juvenile ideas, that a person can't help but burst out laughing at times when they see images of his scrawled words in this film. Also, some of the writing depicted here is not song lyrics but other half-baked ideas or musings. I don't doubt for a moment that Cobain worked hard and developed a talent for putting words together with simple guitar riffs and melodies and that is largely why his music was so popular. And probably why his personal journals were best left personal, even after his death.

Cobain was also a life-long doodler. Yes, a doodler. A worthy and enjoyable pastime for many people. And like many people who draw for enjoyment, Cobain created some "pieces." But he really did not have any talent as a visual artist. Or, more accurately, he clearly made no attempt to acquire any real skill in this area. While Cobain was no intellectual giant, I do feel that he was very self-aware, and I would be willing to bet that he would have cringed at the thought of having these journal pages presented for public consumption.

Finally, in interviews, Cobain offered nothing more than sullen, stock responses or attempts to be humorous in a quirky, alternative way that the image required of him. Again, nothing wrong or unexpected in this. And Cobain and his bandmates repeatedly stated that they were all about the music. They had no desire to lend credence to the idea that their songs were incredibly profound. Also, the absurd questions they faced from jumped-up fanboy interviewers completely justifies some of the droll, self-mocking, playing-to-type answers they provided. But Cobain certainly never gave any indication that in his short life he rose above his white-trash roots and acquired any real knowledge or wisdom about the world beyond his own narrow upbringing and tortured soul.

The second main impression I took away from this film is that Cobain was extremely self-absorbed. Many people are. To write the kind of inward-looking, anxiety-laced lyrics that he wrote, means he probably had to be. And his obsessive self-analysis and resulting rage at the world was, and still is, part of the appeal. I've long maintained that the more self-absorbed a person is, the more prone they are to one of the most destructive, gateway addictions that exists in the world: melodrama. The curse of melodrama thrives in every corner of the world and among all social classes, though it takes hold easier and results in a nastier strain in the lives of the low-bred masses.

Which comes first, the melodrama or the chemical addiction? Hard to say. But they are closely intertwined. The more one ratchets up, the worse the other becomes. And so, Cobain was drawn toward melodrama and heroin. More than a few times Cobain makes barely concealed admissions that he started using heroin so he could play the rock-star role to its extreme and with the idea that the melodrama that would flow would provide grist for further creative outbursts.

The final, and perhaps strongest impression I took away from this film, is that Cobain suffered from extreme anxiety and hypersensitivity. Combined with his self-absorbed, oddly naive nature, this was a formula for just the type of sad ending that he eventually chose for himself. People with this kind of personality need to learn healthy coping strategies early in life or they risk leading horrible, dysfunctional lives. Obviously, Cobain never did learn how to cope.

Establishing the Narrative of Cobain's Life

The film itself is enjoyable to watch. I didn't find the pages from Cobain's journal featuring his writing and banal drawings very interesting though others might. However, the interviews with people who were part of Cobain's life make up the bulk of the film.

But the interviews present viewers with the dilemma that all documentaries create. Who is believable? Who is engaging in revisionist history? Who is more interested in enlarging their role in the narrative as opposed to providing some kind objective insight about the subject of the film? Cobain's father is given a good bashing from Cobain's mother as she recounts how he was apparently a horrible parent. But the film-maker chooses to show only a few token grunts from Cobain's father in response. Perhaps he truly did have nothing of interest to say. Yet Cobain's dolled up, highly engaged mother certainly was given an extensive platform. And while she was being interviewed, it dawned on me for the first time: the blonde hair, garish make-up, and the ability to play up to the camera regardless of what is being discussed: she bears a strange resemblance in appearance and personality to Courtney Love.

As for Love, well, something about her elicits revulsion in many people, and I certainly share that reaction. A shameless and self-serving quality shines through her haggard facade and eclipses all other reactions when she is being interviewed. This perception is probably strengthened by reports regarding her behaviour during her pregnancy when she apparently injected heroin. Or maybe it is simply her controlling, melodramatic nastiness, obsessed with being in the spotlight regardless of what she has to do to accomplish that and without concern for any fallout that affects those around her.

Some of the most depressing, dreary, almost vomit-inducing footage is of Cobain and Love holed up in their dingy apartment high on drugs as Cobain's remaining life at that time was numbered in months. As a viewer, you cringe at the fact that their little daughter had to spend time with these pathetic, shameless and barely functioning individuals. The close-in camera angle of the two dope heads as they blunder around awkwardly and ramble incoherently highlights how they had lost touch with reality.

Many people have commented on the fact that former Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl is not seen at all in this film. I thought it was odd as well, and thought the excuse from the film-maker rang a bit hollow. If only for the sake of completeness, why not make the effort to include him? It smacks of a quid pro quo with someone whose approval and consent were necessary to get the film made. It's not a stretch to believe that there are a number of people trying to exert control over Cobain's legacy as well as the spoils left behind. While there is blunt talk regarding Cobain's flaws throughout the film, there is nary a bad word said against him. Either everyone thought he was one swell individual, or there is some less than subtle massaging of the narrative going on here.

Alongside the supposedly fresh concert footage, there are also some very well done animated sequences that depict Cobain in various vignettes, some with the addition of his voice gleaned from audio tapes he left behind.

The end of Montage of Heck (the name was taken from a picture that Cobain drew and titled) takes viewers up to a few weeks before Cobain accessed the arsenal that seems to be part of most yank households and ventilated his own skull, ending his despair once and for all. I don't know if viewers will get a better sense of who Cobain was from watching this documentary, though they will probably have a more detailed understanding of how he affected those around him. However, as with most drug-related deaths, especially of young people whose own hard work and success facilitated the ability to access the drugs that spelled their demise, most people who watch this film will reiterate the tired lament: What a shame. What a waste.


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