MAY 29, 2015
I CAME OF AGE in the era of grunge and have the flannel babydoll dress to prove it. But this was the mid-’90s, when looking the part didn’t necessitate living it: my most vivid memory of Kurt Cobain’s death is watching Andy Rooney mock it on 60 Minutes. This I watched — as I watched almost everything — with my father, the imperative of generational revolt manifesting itself only in occasional and futile bids for the remote.
Andy Rooney to the nation’s grieving youth (most of whom, according to the Nielsen ratings, had better things to watch than his show): “What’s all this nonsense about how terrible life is? I’d love to relieve the pain you’re going through by switching my age for yours.”
Andy Rooney, professional Grumpy Old Man, weighs in on grunge: “No one’s art is better than the person who creates it. If [Cobain] applied the same brain to his music that he applied to his drug-infested life, it’s reasonable to think that his music may not have made much sense either.”
Maybe everything there is to know about the impact of Kurt Cobain’s 1994 suicide is encapsulated by the fact that, in an age before Twitter and YouTube, back when rapid response national shaming was but a gleam in the internet’s eye and complaint required postage stamps, Rooney’s offhand comments engendered enough objections that he was forced to apologize. Seven years later, the incident got prominent play in his obituaries.
Among the things Rooney couldn’t wrap his head around (Nirvana’s music, Nirvana’s hair, Nirvana’s existence, drug addiction, depression, the idea that a dead rock star could draw more ink and more tears than a dead Nixon) was the possibility of people experiencing authentic, psychic pain — grief — over the loss of a stranger. The fans flooding Cobain’s Seattle neighborhood, the kids weeping on MTV — Rooney mistook this for melodrama, as he mistook the savage anger in Nirvana’s music for pose, not pain. Even grumpy old men, maybe especially grumpy old men, understand grief and sorrow, pain and loss. But grief wears many guises. This one, he simply couldn’t recognize.
Grief, they say — that well-meaning “they” of Hallmark cards and needlework platitudes — fades with time. Less frequently acknowledged is the loss that accompanies that inevitable fading, as ghosts collapse into memories. Maybe the job of grieving is the Sisyphean effort to stave off that collapse, preserve the dead as something independent of our collection of well-worn stories, something more than an extension of ourselves. If that’s the case, then, how to remember a man we never knew as anything but?
By April 5, 1994, Kurt Cobain was the biggest rock star in the world, both brand and legend. He was, even before his suicide, a palimpsest of stories, lies, mistaken assumptions, conflicting accounts, shifting personas. Death — and the decades of relentless mythologizing that followed — hasn’t exactly brought him into sharper relief. Brett Morgen’s recent HBO documentary, Montage of Heck, wants to peel back those layers, dig up the man so long buried beneath the myth. The film, authorized by Courtney Love and co-produced by Cobain’s daughter Frances Bean, has amassed almost universal raves. Critics have tossed around words like “definitive” and “essential.” Twenty-one years after his death, we’re promised a Kurt Cobain we’ve never seen before.
“Definitive” is stretching it — and not only because people aren’t solvable puzzles, rendering definitive biography about as feasible as cold fusion. Montage of Heck doesn’t attempt to answer the questions posed by Cobain’s life and death. Morgen is not in the business of explanations, much less conclusive, all-encompassing histories. His work here has a smaller purview, a narrower — if defiantly grander — mission.
“I can’t imagine there being any more to this story,” declares one of Morgen’s many interviewers, somewhat inexplicably. “[After this documentary], what else is there?” It’s a lot to ask of a two-hour movie, especially this one, the result of eight years spent combing through archival concert footage, newspaper clippings, journal pages, childhood drawings, photographs, family movies, not to mention the 108 audio cassettes that, until Morgen found them in Courtney Love’s storage locker, no one but Cobain knew existed. One can only imagine the treasures on the cutting room floor.
What you won’t find in Montage of Heck:
Any major challenge to the familiar narrative of Kurt Cobain as an angsty, reluctant rocker with an unfortunate heroin habit. Despite breathless claims to the contrary and with a few interesting exceptions, this story hits all the expected beats.
Any version of Cobain not already available to avid fans. The playful, funny side that many viewers seem shocked to discover — as well as signature episodes like Cobain’s botched efforts to lose his virginity and subsequent sort-of suicide attempt — is known to readers of Cobain’s journals (published in a collected volume back in 2002), from which much of Morgen’s footage is drawn.
Any interviews with Dave Grohl (Nirvana’s fifth, final, most famous drummer and Courtney Love antagonist, that latter, according to all involved, having nothing to do with his omission); any interviews with Cobain’s friends or fellow Seattle musicians or anyone but his immediate family, his first and last loves, and Nirvana co-founder Krist Novoselic.
Any engagement with or attempted explanation of his suicide. Any indication of heroin’s pervasiveness in the Seattle scene, or mention of the grunge musicians — Layne Staley, Mike Starr, Kristen Pfaff, Andy Wood — who eventually succumbed to it. Any context for Cobain’s meteoric rise; any history of the musical community from which he emerged (already nearly a decade old and nearing its creative decline by the time Nirvana made it to MTV); any indication that Cobain was something other than a sui generis phenomenon who invented the sound of a generation whole cloth. “Music was shitty and then Nirvana came along,” Morgen told The Guardian — which, admittedly, is exactly how my fellow eighth graders experienced it back in 1991. You’d expect Morgen to know better.
I think he does; I think he doesn’t care. Morgen’s tunnel vision takes us on a gleefully, gloriously claustrophobic journey from Point A to Point A. He does his best to give us a closed loop: Kurt on Kurt. The result is a dizzying sensory assault, less biography than tone poem, Morgen’s attempt to crack open Cobain’s skull and invite us inside. We see Kurt’s thoughts scribbled across the pages of his journal and footage of teenage band rehearsals; we hear recordings of phone calls and excerpts from Cobain’s adolescent mixtapes, including the one that gives the movie its name; we hear strange, unsettling covers of familiar songs; we glimpse Tabitha Soren’s shoulder pads. And then there are the home videos — the Super 8 films of a tiny blond Kurt echoed in the film’s second half by camcorder shots of an equally adorable Frances Bean. Maybe the dead can’t surprise us, but it turns out their home movies can. Here’s bright-eyed toddler Kurt, strumming away at a toy guitar, the effect like watching a young Mickey Mantle pick up his first bat, scored to a lullaby version of “All Apologies”; here’s Kurt and Courtney with Frances Bean, the camera capturing absurdly normal parents palpably in love with their child as, in the same frame, it captures Cobain’s heroin sores and thousand-yard junkie stare, Cobain nearly passing out with his daughter in his arms.
Morgen has said he was reluctant to include any talking head interviews, but eventually selected a precious few, and so we get to see Don Cobain, Kurt’s estranged father, looking shell-shocked, as if he can’t quite figure out why a camera crew has materialized in his living room; Cobain’s mother Wendy describing the feminist awakening that led to her divorce and the apocalyptic effects it had on young Kurt’s domestic life. We see an impossibly gray, middle-aged Krist, pontificating serenely on the past like the Bob Ross of grunge.
And, of course, we see Courtney Love.
There is a revelation in this movie — a myth demolished and a character shockingly revealed — and (maybe not surprisingly, given her participation), it’s Courtney Love.
Love has long played the Yoko Ono to Cobain’s Lennon — and that’s in the most generous accounts of their relationship. Her enemies, and they are legion, paint her as a sociopathic groupie-turned-stalker-turned-junkie siren upon whose shores a hapless Cobain had the misfortune of crashing. Even her daughter, with whom she’s now reconciled, spent a good part of the last several years publicly feuding with her, the ensuing legal battle almost derailing this film. Conspiracy theorists long for her culpability in Cobain’s death, contorting themselves and reality into knots trying to “prove” it.
Morgen’s Love is different. In her present-day interviews, she’s styled almost as an earth mother, complete with GOOP-y backdrop, all flowing blond hair, dulcet tones, and billowing white curtains. Much has been made of the fact that she admits here for the first time that she knowingly did heroin while pregnant. But in the home movie footage Morgen selected, Love ends up looking like the responsible one, the mother focused on her daughter’s care and feeding while her father zones out. The camera worships her: Those lips, that smile! That gleam in her eyes, the promise of wildness barely contained. (I’m one of those who walked out of Boyhood wishing I had seen Girlhood instead, and Morgen’s background portrait of Love leaves me with the same hunger for more. We all know how Kurt Cobain becomes Kurt Cobain; sight unseen, we could all sketch the broad contours of this portrait of the artist as an angsty young man. What I want to know, what my teenage self was desperate to know: how does a girl grow up to be a Courtney Love?)
Morgen stitches all this material together with scraps of commercials, newscasts, movies, and, most strikingly, animations. These include both animated versions of Cobain’s often bloody, violent drawings (by Stefan Nadelman) and hand-drawn sequences playing out the scenes described in Cobain’s spoken-word diary (by Hisko Hulsing and his 18-person crew). The aggressive effects are stylish, visually engaging, and when they work — as in a rapid-fire opening sequence that introduces Cobain’s ’60s childhood with “Territorial Pissings” screaming over tellingly juxtaposed stock footage (duck and cover drills, Godzilla, radiation symbols, mushroom clouds alongside a parade of ostensibly happy homemakers and fathers knowing best) — they’re electrifying. When Morgen errs on the side of cliché — a CSI-worthy shot of swimming sperm as a lead-in to Cobain’s first girlfriend, a discussion of the singer’s stomach troubles playing over frenetic shots of intestinal tubing and gastric juices — they can feel somewhat overwrought, reminiscent of the early ’90s MTV aesthetic parodied by Reality Bites.
At its best, the movie plays like a dream; and like a dream, the world it evokes is both familiar and unfathomable. The piling up of artifacts — of images and objects that function less as explanatory tools than as holy relics — feels almost alchemical, as if the goal here isn’t narrative or argument but emergence, the sum of all parts adding up to a mind at work. Not documentation, but resurrection.
I’m not surprised it took Morgen eight years to make this film; I’m surprised it didn’t take longer. I’m impressed that once he stepped into that storage facility, surrounded himself with Cobain’s “art and his clothes and his guitars and all of these things that were iconic Cobain things,” the audio tapes that “felt like a portal into Kurt’s mind,” he ever persuaded himself to leave.
Objects are seductive; they feel like facts. They feel like evidence.
“The film addresses the fact that some people disapproved of, and were dubious of, Kurt’s relationship with Courtney,” Morgen’s Vanity Fair interviewer says, setting up her next question. “But the film proves [Kurt and Courtney] were totally in love with each other.”
Proof is a high bar, one the film neither clears nor wants to; proof is beside the point. Does it seem likely that from the handful of love notes and the 10 or 15 minutes we see them on screen together (not to mention their marriage, child, repeated public displays of affection), Cobain and Love were a genuine item? Sure. Does it prove anything else about their relationship, and the swaths of it not captured by this particular camera or chosen for inclusion in this film? If Morgen had ditched the lovers lane footage and instead used only clips of arguments and tantrums — or included an interview with, say, Buzz Osborne of the Melvins, who swears Kurt intended to divorce her — would it then somehow prove they weren’t in love, as if passion and mess were mutually exclusive? For the record, I’m Team Kurt-n-Courtney; I want to believe. But I also believe that it can be true and not true that they loved each other, or true sometimes, not true others, true and false at the same time, that reality sometimes (and history always) is a superposition of incommensurables.
Collage may be uniquely well suited for this kind of internal contradiction, and to the history and characters of grunge music, a category built on its own contradictions whose players were as obsessed with crafting a narrative as they were with pretending not to.
“Don’t read my diary when I’m gone,” Cobain wrote in one of his journals, then on the very next line, “OK, I’m going to work now, when you wake up this morning, please read my diary. Look through my things, and figure me out.”
See me; don’t see me. Know me; don’t know me. Put me on TV, give me a record deal, make me famous; no, please, don’t. Call it the anxiety of authenticity, one that sharpened with every success. How does one maintain the pose of disliking the spotlight while appearing on the covers of Rolling Stone, Spin, Sassy? How does one to thine own self be true, when thine own self becomes a brand you can get down at the local mall?
Morgen’s filmic collage has two modes: one seemingly naturalistic (its home video footage, its minimalist interview segments), the other aggressively constructed. But it turns out the “realistic” parts of the movie are equally constructed, and not just in Morgen’s selection of footage. He’s acknowledged that the interview segments weren’t shot at their subjects’ homes but “homes I thought would look like the people’s homes.” The lighting of the interviews is just as staged — and, if you pay attention, stagey — shifting from bright sunlight to ominous shadow, depending on the topic of conversation. And in case we’re ever tempted to forget Morgen’s filter here, there’s always another animated segment, another aggressive sound cue, another reminder not to get lazy and mistake this subjective vision for objective truth. Think of the movie as a narrative Rorschach test, your preferred sections betraying which kind of story you prefer. One lets you forget you’re being fed a story in the first place; one forces you to remember.
“Why do you think that everyone thinks you’re the good one and I’m the bad one?” Love asks her husband in one of the intimate glimpses of domestic life Morgen offers us. She’s plainly joking. She’s also not.
Neither Love nor Cobain are unaware of the storylines imposed on them by fans and media. Both are eager to have a little fun with the storytellers, and it’s this playful impulse — simultaneously mocking and self-mocking — that animates the documentary’s most enjoyable moments. In one video, the couple improvises a kind of vaudevillian puppet drag show for the camera, Kurt in a dress and Hitler mustache, lip-synching to Courtney’s dramatic reading of her hate mail. Morgen compares their act to Lucy and Ricky, which makes Cobain sound like the besieged straight man we’ve long imagined him to be. But on this screen, he comes alive as a clown in his own right, as much an instigator as Love. The sense of humor, the willingness to poke fun at his own self-seriousness, is something many Cobain fans already knew about, or should have. His journals, after all, cite Weird Al Yankovic as the nation’s “modern pop-rock genius” and pair a portentous, heavy black-markered announcement of his band’s new name — OUR LAST AND FINAL NAME IS NIRVANA — with some sardonic commentary scribbled beside it in small print: Ooh eerie mystical doom.
But knowing something, reading something, is different from seeing it, and Morgen’s movie is a welcome corrective to our collective amnesia. We’re reminded that Cobain was more than a tortured artist trope, that grunge had pranking and self-mockery in its DNA. (It was, after all, a grunge label sales rep who, in 1992, infamously suckered The New York Times into printing a list of “grunge-speak” that included such ubiquitous slang as wack slacks, cob nobbler, and swingin’ on the flippity-flop.)
Cobain and Love are having fun, taking evident pleasure in each other, and it’s a deep pleasure to watch them. It’s also a heartbreaking one, and not just because the heroin sores and syringes foreshadow how this story ends. The selves they reveal on camera, when it’s just the two of them, feel so intimate, so real — finally, we cut through all the stories about them. Finally, we encounter a silent space, filled only with the story they tell about themselves. Except: In the end, the story is a lie. They so charmingly mock the people who’ve labeled them junkies even as they evidently are junkies, their antics taking on a tinge of desperation, their lives spinning ever more out of control. Kurt and Courtney weren’t Ricky and Lucy; they weren’t performing for a studio audience. These movies were private, and that’s what hurts. It suggests the only ones they were trying to fool were themselves.
Despite my profound adolescent uncoolness, Nirvana is still the soundtrack of my youth, and Montage of Heck feels, in parts, like watching my own home movies. Those of us who came of age before digital cameras, email, and Facebook ensured minute-by-minute documentation of our lives must make due with our own piecemeal collages of the past. In my case, that’s six videocassettes spanning birth through high school graduation that together form a confusing, dreamlike montage — here’s a birthday party, here’s a T-ball game, here’s some long-forgotten trip to a place no one can remember with dead relatives no one can recognize. Scenes break off abruptly; people age in unexpected, discontinuous leaps — suddenly bald, suddenly wrinkled, suddenly gone for good. The camera’s always aimed in the wrong direction; the good parts, it seems, are almost always cut out. And the more time that passes, the more the past begins to calcify into these recorded images, the only hard evidence of what was. The fuzzy spaces in between gradually start feeling less like memory than invention.
Two decades have passed since Kurt Cobain’s death; we’re exactly as far from Nevermind as Nevermind was from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band; the older half of Generation X is creeping into 60 Minutes’ prime demographic. Whatever capacity Cobain once had to surprise and electrify, to deconstruct our narrative and defy his own legend, has vanished along with flannel and mixtapes. Only now, thanks to Brett Morgen, he has it back; we have him back. Morgen has accomplished something extraordinary here — not demolishing a myth, maybe, but destabilizing it enough to reveal a glimpse of the man at its center. If only it could last.
The movie certainly will — for Nirvana fans and anyone eager for a peek at this corner of the past, Montage of Heck will undoubtedly be essential viewing for a long time to come. But the miracle, the resurrection? That’s temporary.
The movie is barely out, and already, the otherness of this new Kurt is calcifying into the familiar. Myths are black holes, hungry and all-consuming, and you can already see, in media coverage, the myth-making machine grinding into action, the beats of a revised narrative falling into place: teen Kurt trying to lose his virginity, smitten Kurt playing a Beatles love song for Courtney, junkie Kurt nodding off while his wife cuts Frances Bean’s hair. It’s the most indelible moments, the ones that jolt Cobain back to life, that are destined to become the most shopworn, doomed by their own success. We’ll lose him all over again.
Cobain didn’t like journalists. He didn’t like interviews, he didn’t like people trying to explain him, and he certainly didn’t like explaining himself. Morgen doesn’t include much Nirvana interview footage in his film, maybe because it’s so painfully clear that Cobain has nothing but disdain for people in search of answers.
“There’s nothing to be said, it’s all in the music, man,” he tells one reporter, and it’s unclear whether he’s playing around with angsty rock star drag or simply telling his truth or both.
Art is a different kind of artifact. It doesn’t calcify; it doesn’t lose its rough edges with the passage of time. The dead can’t surprise us, but their art can, as “Smells Like Teen Spirit” does here, exploding over the final credits, alien and familiar, at once profoundly other and the song of ourselves. Maybe it’s not all in the music — reason enough to be grateful for the two hours of footage that comes before — but there’s something in the music that can’t be captured by explanations, images, interviews, even a shaky camcorder. Something that can’t be pressed flat by time or memory, something irreducible, even generative — something alive.