Kurt Cobain’s enigmatic personality, the impact of his work, and the sadness surrounding his 1994 suicide have been chronicled on screen before — Gus Van Sant offered a fictionalized account of the end of the musician’s life with Last Days, while Nick Broomfield’s Kurt & Courtney and AJ Schnack’s About a Son took very different approaches to documenting the circumstances of the troubled Nirvana frontman’s tempestuous rise and fall.
But the new film, Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, which kicks off a brief theatrical run on April 24 before premiering on HBO on May 4, is a wholly different beast. Although there are the typical Cobain-related talking heads, including wife Courtney Love, bandmate Krist Novoselic, sister Kim, and mother Wendy O’Connor, the film is primarily made up of audio and video taken from Cobain’s life. “Documentary as a medium is intended to look at people from the outside,” says director Brett Morgen (The Kid Stays in the Picture). “With Montage of Heck, we had the opportunity to look from the inside looking out.”
The result is an almost embarrassingly intimate, regularly thrilling, and sometimes harrowing look at Cobain, from his early family life through his troubled teen years, his rock stardom, and his tragic passing. Morgen was granted unprecedented freedom to sift through the Cobain family’s personal archive, which yielded hours and hours of home videos of Kurt as a child. But the real coup came when Morgen happened upon a box in a storage locker containing more than 200 hours of tapes that Kurt had recorded for himself. “I found that to be the most revealing and intimate material I was able to access,” says Morgen. “That really became the foundation of the film.”
The musical experiments, sound collages, personal monologues, and recorded phone calls help paint a picture of Cobain as someone who couldn’t help but create. “Music was one form of expression for Kurt, and it was the one form he expressed himself most successfully in,” Morgen explains. “But the thing about Kurt that comes through is that he had to create. He had to purge these images and these sounds out of him. He would use any media available to him.”
Heck also represents the first time the public has ever seen a multitude of paintings, sculpture, drawings, and journals, all crafted by Cobain and hid away until now. “The movie is an adaptation of Kurt’s art, so we’re animating his art and his journals, and we would take various sounds that he had collected and then use that as our foundation for our sound collage,” Morgen says. “There were specific sequences that are untouched, but for the most part we were taking the tools from Kurt’s kit and using them to make our film.”
Producing art wasn’t Cobain’s only addiction, and Heck does not turn a blind eye to Kurt’s struggles with heroin. Among the home video taken by the family is footage that finds Cobain, clearly stoned (though protesting he isn’t), attempting to hold baby daughter Frances Bean steady while Love gives her a haircut. It’s a profoundly sad, troubling piece of footage, the type of low point that public figures tend to bury forever. But Morgen had final cut, and had the particular blessing of Frances. “Her only dictate to me was to make the film honest,” Morgen says of Cobain’s daugher, now 22. “She’s an artist, and she completely respected my autonomy as an artist. From the beginning she said, ‘This is your film.'”
The freedom to construct the story as he saw fit was important to Morgen. “Personally, I would not have made the film if I didn’t have [final cut]… But it never came to that. I never had to say, ‘If I don’t have control, I’m not making this film.’ It never came to that…. I’ll always wonder why Courtney did that, because she didn’t have to sign the waiver.”
With its almost exclusive reliance on Cobain’s work and words, Montage of Heck goes beyond the average rock doc, offering a fresh take on the Nirvana myth. “I was cynical,” Morgen admits. “I didn’t know going into this if there was anything left to be said or to be seen. But this story wasn’t about Kurt desiring to be famous and then once he got there kind of rejecting it. It’s really a family-origin story, and it’s about Kurt’s drive and determination to find the acceptance and the nurturing he so desired as a child. It’s really just about a boy named Kurt.”