The first thing to take away from Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck is just how many great tracks Nirvana have. From the iconic ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ to classic cuts like ‘Something in the Way’, ‘Lithium’ and ‘Come as You Are’; they were a band who captured the zeitgeist in a way few other bands have done since. They, and more specifically, He, are among the most mythologised and eulogised of all rock acts—perhaps only eclipsed in legacy by the holy triumvirate of The Beatles, The Stones, and Bob Dylan—and so it’s refreshing to be reminded that the music more than matches the myth.
With that said, it’s important to separate the band from the actual film of “Heck”; to review the documentary and not the legend. Besides, enough has been written about the Nirvana story that it becomes increasingly difficult to write anything fresh or vital on them. Brett Morgen’s film, however, does feel fresh, and while it’s not quite vital to the Nirvana canon, it’s certainly a welcome addition to the ever-expanding catalogue of media that succeeds them.
Sometimes, certain words ring through your head after watching a film, and the main one reverberating around my own after watching Montage of Heck was kinetic. Kinetic for how alive and energetic Morgen’s film is, and kinetic for the way he presents Kurt and Nirvana on stage—say what you like about the band, but never doubt their status as live performers. Thanks to a kind-of access-all-areas free-reign, Morgen uses an array of art created by Cobain to illustrate his documentary: lines from his journals and notebooks pop-up and sprawl across the screen, animated so that one line succeeds another, the most haunting ones highlighted and left to linger. His drawings and pictures and colourings come alive, playing out like grotesque tableaux, with unborn babies kicking redneck fathers through the head from inside the womb. (Kurt suffered a crippling stomach disorder from an early age—this both fuelled his art and ruined his life—and there are constant allusions to things of an intestinal nature: rotting guts, innards that crawl like worms, viscera that pulsates to the sonic booms of the music.) This all creates an unsettling ambience, one that matches the distortion that permeates much of Nirvana’s music and permeated much of Cobain’s psyche.
There’s also a tenderness to “Heck” though, intermittently presenting itself as the serene half of Kurt’s unbalanced psychosphere. This is best demonstrated in home-footage of Kurt and Courtney (Love) playing around with daughter Frances, and in some of the music choices Morgen makes. Alongside the obvious, visceral classics (‘Smells Like…’), Morgen also selects some Kurt-cuts a little more antithetical to the Nirvana model: there’s gorgeous, stripped-down versions of ‘Something in the Way’ and ‘Drain You’, and, most surprisingly, Kurt’s own little version of The Beatles’ ‘And I Love Her’—a converse to the Nirvana ethos if ever there was one. Add to this a haunting, hallucinatory school-choir rendition of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’—played over a slow-mo track of the iconic video—and you begin to get both sides of the Kurt Cobain persona; this is his uneasy duality, and the dichotomy it creates is the film’s biggest asset.
Elsewhere there are slight problems, and ultimately Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck becomes an extremely good documentary, if not quite a great one. For instance, two long animated stretches not of Kurt’s own creation halt the narrative somewhat and threaten the film with a fall into ‘emo’ territory, a fate it otherwise avoids. Moreover, some of the traditional talking-head interviews lack revelation, and you are left wondering how they made the final-cut at all. Recent documentaries like Citizenfour and The Jynx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst have proven that this classic approach to documentary filmmaking is still very much in-vogue, but those films are instant-classics, using the talking-head as a mouthpiece for national security and murder respectively. Few in “Heck” go that deep, however, and many do nothing but embellish on some of the more woebegone clichés of the Cobain fable. The exception to this is Courtney Love, who provides some staggering information regarding the final few weeks of Kurt’s life—again, say what you like about the former Hole front-woman, but boring she ain’t.
I said at the start that you have to separate Nirvana’s music from everything else around them. That’s still true, yet naturally Montage of Heck and the band’s music are intrinsic to one another. The sonic disjoin of the music is mirrored in the film’s style, creating an unsettling but ultimately lasting work. This is true of Cobain too, who did what he did and then left, leaving us a sink of moral filth to sieve through. He also left behind something great though, and that’s all an artist ever really owes us anyway.
Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck will be released in cinemas across the UK on April 10th.