“It’s now my duty to completely drain you.” You expected to hear Nirvana songs playing over the MARC Theater’s P.A. system before the world premiere of Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck. But when that line from Nevermind‘s “Drain You” came on a few minutes before the lights dimmed, you wouldn’t have guessed just how prophetic the sentiment was. A multimedia mix of the singer-songwriter’s home movies, journal entries, drawings, notebook scrawlings and audio recordings (buffered, naturally, by vintage interview excerpts and concert clips), Brett Morgen’s documentary is more than just a must-see for Nirvana fans. It’s an eight-years-in-the-making collective labor of love that offers a private peek into the artist’s mind, from the first creative stirrings to the spiral downward. And by the time you get to the final shot of Kurt thanking the audience at the band’s MTV Unplugged show, you don’t just feel as if you’ve gotten to know the man better. You’re left completely emotionally spent.
“I just wanted to give Frances a few more hours with her dad,” Morgen said during his long introduction. She was in the audience, as was Kurt’s mom, his sister Kim, Krist Novoselic and Courtney Love, who was thanked profusely by the director for her trust. “I dare you to find someone else who’d hand you the keys to their storage facility,” he cracked, “and say ‘Go through all my shit, make a fucking movie and I’ll see it when it’s done.'” To say that Morgen got unfettered access to the frontman’s personal belongings would be putting it mildly. There’s Super 8 footage of Kurt as a towheaded toddler, banging away on a toy piano and blowing out candles on a birthday cake. There are snapshots of him as a sullen teen, with Kurt’s voiceover describing how discovering pot and punk helped him cope with a profound sense of alienation. Ever wanted to see his birth certificate, or hear Cobain’s taped conversation with Melvins singer Buzz Osborne about how shitty Aberdeen is? It’s in here, as are glimpses of endless notebooks filled with artwork, prospective band names (The Reaganites, Hare Lip), and embryonic versions of what would become iconic songs.
Testimonials from his family members, ex-girlfriend Tracy Marander, Novoselic and Love help bridge the gaps between flipping through the pages and sifting through the Kurtaphenalia. (Dave Grohl is conspicuously absent, which Morgen explained in the postscreening Q&A: He only interviewed the Foo Fighter three weeks ago, after he’d locked the film down. There’s a chance he’ll edit the footage in some time in the future, the director said.) But any Rock Documentary 101 concessions pretty much stop there. Montage of Heck takes its title from one of the mix tapes Cobain would fill with miscellaneous voices, noise, taped snippets and the occasional demo, and Morgen borrows that odds-and-ends format in order to get at something much more personal. Key parts of the Nirvana mythology, from Kurt finding inspiration in Kathleen Hanna’s graffiti to when/how Grohl joined the band, are AWOL. David Geffen’s phone number is briefly glimpsed on a notepad. Even the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video is overlaid with a version of the song sung by a children’s choir.
Instead, we get the unfiltered Kurt experience, all disturbing sketches, poems in progress and aspirational lists. We also get a disjointed, disorienting look at fame through his eyes, seen as a jumble of shows, news reports and vapid TV interrogations that all bleed together. And we get an uncomfortably intimate look at his life with Courtney, including self-shot close-ups of the couple making out, bitching about their treatment in the press and a pregnant Love showing off her breasts. This is a couple drunk on love, and per the glossy-to-tabloid reports that Morgen sprinkles in, often high on drugs. But it’s that first part that really comes across, especially when Frances Bean Cobain enters the picture. “Frances told me that, ‘People act like my dad was Santa Claus,'” Morgen said after the screening. “‘And he wasn’t Santa Claus.’ I think she realized that after seeing the movie.” Kurt was a doting dad, even when outside pressures put him on edge or his health problems zonked him out. His love for his child was always public knowledge, but witnessing him rolling around on the floor with her as she cracks up drives the point home. This is not a spokesman for a generation. This is a human being, and a husband, and a father.
Which just makes it that much more heartbreaking to watch Kurt unravel via violent voicemails and pages of his notebook that attest to a cry for help — one entry is simply the phrase “Go kill yourself” repeated over and over. The most haunting moment comes when Rolling Stone‘s David Fricke can be heard over the soundtrack asking Cobain about the In Utero outtake “I Hate Myself and Want to Die”: “Either you’re being really satirical, or you’re going to a real dark place here.” Kurt’s response is a laugh that’s positively chilling.
But as the director himself said when questioned about why he didn’t go into Kurt’s passing, “I didn’t want to make a celebration of death…I wanted to make a celebration of life.” Anyone could have crafted a documentary about a band. Morgen’s experimental, road-less-traveled approach does something that’s much deeper: letting you feel as if you’ve pored through someone’s scrapbook. You get the sense that Kurt would have liked this. As for his fans, be prepared to meet the man you admire, warts and all.
Check out our Sundance page for complete coverage of the 2015 festival.