Since Kurt Cobain’s death in 1994, there have been countless documentaries that try to dig deep into the persona of Cobain to investigate why he ended his life so abruptly in the midst of fame with Nirvana. No documentary seems to do Cobain any justice, as each film either decides to focus wholeheartedly on his suicide, his relationship with Courtney Love or Nirvana in general.
This is where ‘Montage of Heck’ has finally turned the Cobain subject matter on its head.
‘Montage of Heck‘ is directed by Brett Morgen and spans the 27 years of Kurt Cobain’s life. Right from the inner workings of his childhood in Aberdeen, Washington up to just before his death in Seattle, Washington in 1994. Morgen never actually documents this aspect of Cobain’s life, instead opting to fade to black and have text fade in explaining what happened. And that’s it. No hour long investigations into what happened, no glorifying of suicide notes, nothing. Which is what make this documentary stand out amongst all the rest, as Morgen seems to be the only one who has respected him as a human being rather than a cultural icon. And that respect amounts further into the production of the documentary, as Cobain’s daughter Frances Bean is executive producer of the film, helping Morgen bring a new perspective of her father that she never even really knew other than a cultural icon.
Through this, Morgen is able to finally show Cobain’s life through Cobain’s eyes. Morgen was given access to an amalgamation of Cobain’s personal belongings that hadn’t been looked into before for a project like this. This involved hundreds of journals, paintings, cassette tapes etc., one cassette tape in which that Morgen was inspired to make this documentary from – a tape titled ‘Montage of Heck’. This cassette tape is an eclectic mix of songs that Cobain complied together in 1988 from musicians such as The Beatles, Van Halen, Led Zeppelin, Cher, Donny Osmond etc. and some unexpected sound effects that tend to become extremely weird in parts.
But this tape acts as the basis of the whole documentary – a new look into Cobain’s life. A life that no one seems to know anything about due to the media polluting the idea that Cobain was a miserable, sullen Grunge icon that didn’t know what to do with the fame of his band. This part of Cobain is true to form, but that’s just one part of a human being. Morgen shows Cobain’s creative side through his journals and artwork, his loving side through home videos of him as a child and him with his child and wife.
Morgen even goes so far as to animate certain journal entries as to breathe life into Cobain’s written words. He transforms voice recordings of Kurt either reading out some of his journal entries or just speaking about things that are happening in his life and creates animated sequences to give a visual aid to the narration. All this lends to an extremely different take on documentary film making which I love. It’s as though Morgen knew what Cobain would have approved of if he were around to see this come to fruition. The documentary is like a collage – it’s so creatively put together to amplify Kurt as a person, much like Morgen has done with previous documentaries such as his Rolling Stones documentary, ‘Crossfire Hurricane’.
One of the great things about the documentary is that it’s not about Nirvana. There was supposed to be an interview with Dave Grohl at some point but he wasn’t available at the time of shooting due to him recording/shooting Sonic Highways with Foo Fighters. When Morgen eventually recorded the interview, they’d already come close to finishing the final edit of the film and he didn’t feel that the interview really fit with what he was trying to convey. Which I commend him for, as it suits the film well as it really lent to just having Krist Novoselic be the only one being interviewed who was actually a part of Nirvana as he and Cobain had such a profound bond with each other in the band since they had been best friends with each other since high school.
Although, at points ‘Montage of Heck’ seems a little to invasive. The last portion of the film showing Cobain and Love’s life seems forced at times. Love was obviously a huge part of his life, but it’s the same notion surrounding his suicide. We know what happened, we don’t need to go into such deep detail again. It was nice to see the family videos and what a happy family they were underneath all the media scrutiny. But then that contrasted extremely with some very distressing footage of Cobain completely out of it when he and Love are giving their daughter a haircut for the first time. It just didn’t feel right at points, like we shouldn’t be seeing these videos just to know what Cobain was like.
‘Montage of Heck’ as a whole though is a definite feat for Morgen. He’s no doubt managed to create an outstanding documentary in some ways celebrating the man that Cobain was rather than dwelling on the man he didn’t have the chance to be.
Words by Sophie McEvoy