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Kurt on Film: A Guide to Cobain’s Cinematic Legacy

From ‘Montage of Heck’ to “inspired by” movies, here’s a complete breakdown of the Nirvana singer’s screen appearances

Kurt Cobain

Kurt Cobain of Nirvana during the taping of MTV Unplugged at Sony Studios in New York City on November 18th, 1993.

Frank Micelotta/Getty

While Montage of Heck will soon be considered the definitive Kurt Cobain documentary, it's not the only time the Nirvana singer has either appeared on the big screen or been a primary influence for a character in a film. In fact, the rock star's history with Hollywood goes back to late 1993, when Quentin Tarantino considered casting the Nirvana singer and his wife Courtney Love in the drug dealer roles later filled by Eric Stoltz and Rosanna Arquette in the 1994 classic Pulp Fiction. (Cobain later thanked "Tarentino, Quentin" in the In Utero liner notes.)

While the man who wrote "Smells Like Teen Spirit" missed out on co-starring in that particular pop-culture touchstone, his presence and essence has appeared in nearly a dozen films, whether it was grunge-era time capsules, unauthorized docs, or movies inspired by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame legend. Here's a quick breakdown of Cobain on film.

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American singer and guitarist Kurt Cobain (1967 - 1994), performs with his group Nirvana at a taping of the television program 'MTV Unplugged,' New York, New York, Novemeber 18, 1993. (Photo by Frank Micelotta/Getty Images)

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‘Kurt & Courtney’ (1998)

Perhaps the most infamous film to feature Cobain, this absolutely unauthorized profile was the first work to plant the controversial seed that Courtney Love was in same way responsible for Cobain's death. Directed by notable documentarian Nick Broomfield (Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer), Kurt & Courtney investigates the tumultuous relationship between Nirvana's singer and the Hole frontwoman. Although the filmmaker himself believes Cobain committed suicide, he still offers up insane interviews with odd characters like El Duce, a local punk rocker who claims Love offered him $50,000 to kill her husband.

Thanks to the efforts of Love's legal team, the doc never received a widespread release – a Sundance Film Festival premiere in 1998 was similarly nixed over threat of a lawsuit – but the documentary still inspired a nation of conspiracy theorists to flood YouTube with their own "Kurt was murdered" videos.

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‘The Vigil (for Kurt Cobain)’ (1998)

This 1998 Canadian indie starring a cast of unknown actors doesn't feature Cobain or his music — but as you might have guessed from the parenthetical in the title, it was certainly inspired by the Nirvana frontman. The premise: In the days after the singer's suicide, a group of British Columbians band together to travel from north of the border to Seattle in order to attend his vigil. Not much is known other than the fact that Vancouver Province claims "this road movie rocks," but the film is available via Netflix for any curious completists.

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American singer and guitarist Kurt Cobain (1967 - 1994), performs with his group Nirvana at a taping of the television program 'MTV Unplugged,' New York, New York, Novemeber 18, 1993. (Photo by Frank Micelotta/Getty Images)

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‘Last Days’ (2005)

Until someone officially makes a movie that recreates Cobain's life from first guitar to untimely passing, director Gus Van Sant's almost-a-biopic of the Nirvana singer's titular "last days" may be the closest we'll get to his version of Walk the Line. It's not technically a film about Cobain, though the lawsuit-avoiding film does feature a 1994 timeline, a Pacific Northwest setting and Kurt lookalike actor Michael Pitt in the leading role, playing a rocker named "Blake." But Van Sant's film does attempt to delve into the real-life icon's struggles with isolation and depression in the hours before his suicide. And adding some credence to Last Days is an appearance by Sonic Youth singer and Cobain confidante Kim Gordon, cast as a record exec who's worried about the musician's mental state. Still, this fictionalized retelling was met with more scorn than appreciation from Nirvana fans.

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American singer and guitarist Kurt Cobain (1967 - 1994), performs with his group Nirvana at a taping of the television program 'MTV Unplugged,' New York, New York, Novemeber 18, 1993. (Photo by Frank Micelotta/Getty Images)

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‘Kurt Cobain: About a Son’ (2006)

Michael Azerrad's intimate 1993 book Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana is considered one of the best profiles of the band, and in 2005, filmmaker AJ Schnack teamed with the author to construct this abstract look at the environment that produced the future Rock and Roll Hall of Famer. The film benefits from using audio from Azerrad's Cobain interviews (he had over a day's worth of conversations with Nirvana's singer on tape) to help paint a portrait of the late singer, but since the documentary was made without the estate's cooperation — and with no actual performance footage to project — the movie failed to resonate with Nirvana fans. In fact, About a Son is perhaps more of interest to Death Cab for Cutie fans, since frontman Ben Gibbard collaborated with Sub Pop and K Records fixture Steve Fisk to create the film's score.

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American singer and guitarist Kurt Cobain (1967 - 1994), performs with his group Nirvana at a taping of the television program 'MTV Unplugged,' New York, New York, Novemeber 18, 1993. (Photo by Frank Micelotta/Getty Images)

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‘Pearl Jam Twenty’ (2011)

It's hard to tell the story of grunge, Seattle and Pearl Jam without at least mentioning Nirvana (although Cameron Crowe's Singles manages to pull it off). Nevermind and Ten were released just a month apart in 1991, and although the two bands enjoyed a bit of a sibling rivalry early on – Cobain himself admitted he used to "talk shit" about Eddie Vedder – the groups ultimately realized they shared the same fans. The Nirvana frontman even admitted later that he discovered Vedder was a "really cool guy."

Their minor feud dissipated entirely when the two musicians danced together at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards; grainy footage of that moment features in Pearl Jam Twenty. "Sometimes people elevate you, whether you like it or not. And it's really easy to fall," Vedder told an audience on April 8, 1994 after Cobain's body was found. "I don't think any of us would be in this room if it weren't for Kurt Cobain."

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American singer and guitarist Kurt Cobain (1967 - 1994), performs with his group Nirvana at a taping of the television program 'MTV Unplugged,' New York, New York, Novemeber 18, 1993. (Photo by Frank Micelotta/Getty Images)

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The Authorized Concert Films (1993-2011)

While Nirvana only released three albums and an odds-and-sods compilation during their short time together, the past two decades have seen a treasure trove of posthumous and officially licensed Nirvana concert videos hit shelves. Two of the band's greatest live performances are readily available on DVD: Their beautiful swan song MTV Unplugged in New York and Live at Reading, which captures Nirvana's historic 1992 concert at the famed British festival.

Nirvana's legacy is also captured in the rehearsal footage DVD that accompanied 2004's With the Lights Out; the 1994 live comp Live! Tonight! Sold Out!!; the shot-on-16mm Nevermind reissue companion concert Live at the Paramount; and, most recently, a DVD of the band's long-out-of-print Live and Loud concert special that was originally broadcast on MTV to celebrate New Year's Eve 1993.

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‘Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck’ (2015)

The unanimous acclaim that greeted Brett Morgen's documentary after its Sundance Film Festival premiere last January tells you all you need to know about the first Cobain film made with complete cooperation from Courtney Love. Packed with heartbreaking never-before-seen home movies and lots of Kurt's own tape recordings, journals and drawings — as well as interviews with close friends and family — this intimate look at the man behind the music presents offers an unprecedented peek into his life. Not only is this the definitive film about the singer, it's on a shortlist of the best music documentaries of all time. This is the Gimme Shelter that Cobain's life has long deserved.

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