Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck

(Brett Morgen, USA, 2015): As a immersion into the mind of Kurt Cobain, Brett Morgen’s Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck is a suggestive and selective knockout, a provocative approximation of a painfully susceptible brain jolted by the constant barrage of ideas, images and sounds. In these passages, when Morgen blends rotoscopic animation, snippets of home-recorded audio, montages from notebooks and moving images culled from home movies and video, Cobain’s art and afflictions merge to often devastatingly illuminating effect. The brain capable of such sustaining such violently extreme contrasts, of harbouring such sadness and aggression in locked, combative intensity — this is the brain that hears that music Nirvana would make: pop music stirred with crushed glass, gargled as milk and blood. Tasked with the otherwise fraught task of making the official, estate-authorized Cobain bio-doc, Morgen has astutely considered his options and resources and zeroed in on exactly how those opportunities and limitations might most fruitfully be exploited. If the outside perspective is often maddeningly selective or even outright obstinate in its omissions — only Krist Novoselic speaks for the band, no contemporary or influenced musicians are heard, the predacious industry is kept at a distance, and no one is permitted to counter Kurt’s mom Wendy O’Connor’s eyebrow-arching claim that when her son played demos of Nevermind for her she warned him “that everything would change” — Montage‘s inside p.o.v. is what makes the movie rise above and beyond even its own occasional lapses into tabloid voyeurism, hagiographic over-simplification and incipient suggestions of willful self-denial. For one thing, if no small part of Cobain’s own irreconcilable internal turmoil stemmed from trying to square purity with profit, how are we to judge a movie that uses such intimately revealing archival material — inside the newlywed mom-and-pop Kurt and Courtney’s heroin-honeymoon den, all is shown and all rumours confirmed — to sustain the ongoing commercial empire on the twentieth anniversary of the musician’s suicide? That we are so uncomfortably and inescapably aware of this grinding paradox, and that Morgen uses such subtle images of Cobain’s otherwise mostly mute father Don’s hands compulsively clenching his chair’s armrest to tell us more than any words can, only amplifies this movie’s own profoundly bipolar nature. By so effectively replicating what the internal architecture of this extraordinary artist’s imagination might have been like, and by rendering not only the music but the pain of its genesis so vividly and immediately, Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck permits the man and music to speak louder than anything else, and rise above the drain that Cobain got sucked away by. The reiteration of one of rock music’s most romantic and irresistible myths — that of the artist too pure, sensitive and (god help us) authentic to live un-martyred in the real world — may be depressingly inevitable, but the reiteration of the essential musical power of Nirvana, especially above the din of its own marketing and mythology, is nothing short of mildly miraculous. There were times when this movie had my ears hearing freshly, and left me needing to listen again. That seems a reasonably solid bottom line. (Universal/HBO)