“Punk is musical freedom. It's saying, doing and playing what you want.” - Kurt Cobain
In the same way that Cobain felt that punk music was freedom, here director Brett Morgen provides a punk aesthetic in order to cast aside the shackles of the Nirvana myth and everything that comes with the name Kurt Cobain. Courtney Love first approached Morgen in 2007 with the idea for the project which would eventually become Montage of Heck. It is the first documentary film about Cobain to be made with the cooperation of his family (Kurt's daughter Frances Bean Cobain is an executive producer).
Those expecting a music documentary will be left disappointed; it isn't a reflection on the band and while the music is featured heavily it is often simply in the background. There are no real revelations about the music, though some beautiful alternate and live versions of songs permeate the film. It is a documentary about a man and the relationships that defined him, from his parents to his girlfriends to his daughter. You could argue that the lack of exploration of his musical side is a glaring omission, though it has been featured elsewhere. There are several things missing, such as bandmate Dave Grohl not being interviewed. The ending will also likely cause frustration for many as it ends just after the MTV Unplugged performance. There is nothing about his death and the legacy that came shortly after. The way the film explores his life, it could explore his death and legacy with such intricacy. The fact it doesn't feels like an anti-climax.
Here was an artist that hated media intrusion in his life. Yet here we are, voyeurs of his life in this documentary many years later, free to watch reel after reel of home video footage of Cobain. In the early ‘90s Cobain was defined as a figurehead of a disaffected generation for kids; people were quick to portray a message with him, to define him by whatever people were feeling because of his music. He wasn't a person, he was a message. Newspapers and television intruded on his life daily with ruminations of his drug use and how he treated his daughter. It's hard not to feel like we are doing the same here no matter the intentions of the documentary.
In home video footage we see Cobain play with his daughter. It makes for incredibly emotional moments (arguably the best of the film), though such intimacy and intrusion is exactly what Kurt rallied against. It's a strange juxtaposition for the viewer. Montage of Heck seeks to explore the man, his addiction, pain, suffering, music, art and family. At this it succeeds. We see a complete person, not a guy on a TV shirt. Not a myth, but a funny, lonely, artistic, loving, messed-up human being. Montage of Heck blends journal entries, music, home videos, interviews and animations all seamlessly together for an inventive and poetic documentary. It is determined to find everything beyond the myth, legacy and culture surrounding Cobain.
It isn't a perfect film, but Montage of Heck's portrayal of Kurt Cobain should be commended for its honesty. It is an intense, harrowing portrayal of a man and the struggle between honesty and art and the price of fame which often comes with it. Like Cobain himself in the interviews featured within the film, Montage of Heck is frank, honest, conflicted and certainly far from perfect. Though, you can't take your eyes off it.
Expected Rating: 6 out of 10