“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.