When you realise that Kurt Cobain left us 21 years ago this month, at age 27, it’s bound to make you feel old. It also makes me feel a bit sad – conjuring up the same feelings from that fateful day in 1994 when we were told his stomach problems had gotten too much for him, and he’d shot himself to ease the pain. My mind’s eye still recalls the distinctly paparazzi-esque “police photograph” of his body which was printed in whichever magazine deemed such a thing appropriate at the time (the Internet may have existed in those days but I wasn’t on it. Needless to say those pictures now are).
I am proud as heck to have been in the audience at Nirvana’s only New Zealand show (February 1992). For a paltry $25, we were treated to an hour of the 3Ds, an hour of Second Child and an hour of Nirvana (who, if I recall correctly, only had the albums Bleach and Nevermind under their belts by that stage). We all thought it was Christmas, though we had no idea just how important that gig would turn out to be. While the band went on to even greater acclaim with the release of In Utero, two years later Cobain was gone and with him any chance of seeing them play live again.
21 years later, with his daughter Frances Bean Cobain as executive producer, a new documentary threatens to resurrect Cobain to the status he abhorred so strongly, even though the film eschews hero worship and instead offers one of the most detailed and intimate portraits of the troubled soul you’re likely to see.
Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck is directed by Brett Morgen (who co-directed the Hollywood doco The Kid Stays in the Picture back in 2002) and, to his credit, there is nothing fanboy about it – instead, it’s a sad, fascinating, sometimes exhilarating window into Cobain’s inner beauty and torment, from childhood through to music superstardom. We learn about the family problems that led to his feeling rejection very sharply throughout his life; we read his often brilliant scribblings, view his frequently disturbing etchings. And we hear his music, powerful and evocative as it blasts through the silver screen, which will inevitably send the viewer scuttling home to fish their old CDs out from the box under the bed.
Having been granted access to Cobain’s archives (a mere 18 boxes, it turned out, although there was absolute gold within), Morgen has pieced together an incredibly balanced and yet still benevolent depiction of the reluctant God of Grunge. Sensibly, he ignores the music industry execs and pundits, and instead provides a mouthpiece to Cobain’s parents, sister, wife (present day Courtney Love is surprisingly reasonable and offers some touching insights) and his fellow band members (the thrill of being reminded of just how young Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl once looked is a whole other reason to see the film).
And then there’s the archive footage. Turns out Kurt & Courtney were regular home video makers, which lends its own special resonance to proceedings when you consider his daughter never really knew him in person – we see him as a doting father (albeit sometimes strung out on heroin, which is a whole other level of heart-breaking) and there’s no disputing the love between Cobain and his high maintenance bride.
Montage of Heck is obviously a must-see for fans, but it is also a riveting record of one of rock music’s fallen icons. Sure, we can speculate about how we might not have cared about Cobain had he lived on – whether the band would have sunk into obscurity or might now be reforming for one of those damn reunion/retirement-plan world tours so many of their counterparts are undertaking.
But the reality is, Cobain simply lived up to that cliché of a maxim: he lived fast, died young, and left a beautiful legacy.