Even if you aren’t obsessed with Nirvana, Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck is required watching. It’s perhaps the greatest biographical film ever made about an artist, primarily because it features so much input from its primary source. Montage of Heck (which you can now stream on HBO Go after its premiere on the network Monday night) contains very few traditional documentary “talking head” bits. Instead, it zeroes in on Cobain’s work: his recordings, his paintings, his journals, and the hours and hours of home video footage that Courtney Love handed over to director Brett Morgen.
Those audio and video tapes were a great coup for Morgen, who was given total access to everything that Love had stashed away in a storage locker and granted final cut of Montage of Heck. As a result, the vision of Cobain presented in the film is sometimes uncomfortably unfiltered, and though executive producer Frances Bean Cobain wanted as raw and real a presentation of her father as Morgen could muster, some of the doc’s other participants were a little uncomfortable in how honest it was.
The most harrowing footage in the film is taken from a home video that features Cobain, clearly messed up, holding baby Frances as Love attempts to give her a haircut. Love accuses Cobain of being high, and he gets angry and defensive, but he’s clearly trying not to nod out. His skin is terrible, his eyes sunken into his skull. It’s a clear-eyed look at what heroin can do to the human body, and it’s the sort of too-real look that we rarely get at the famous. “Look, [Cobain’s mother] Wendy [O’Connor], [Cobain’s sister] Kim and [Nirvana bandmate] Krist [Novoselic] all had serious issues with that scene,” Morgen says. “I think if given the chance they would prefer that we don’t see that side of Kurt. But Kurt’s been associated with heroin for 25 years, so there’s no mystery to it. But in a sense, in not seeing the face of it, it inevitably gets romanticized. I felt that it would be a tribute to Kurt to destroy that romanticism.”
Cobain’s struggles with heroin have been well-documented. He spent time in rehab and struggled to stay clean, though those abstract ideas don’t really drive home the type of torment that Cobain went through when it came to the drug. “Kim said to me, ‘My brother was really embarrassed about his heroin use. I know you wanted to make a film that Kurt would be cool with. Do you think he would want to see that?'” Morgen says. “I spent a great deal of time with Kim, and one story she told me was this incident—I think it was in Paris—where Kurt got off stage and a 14-year-old boy handed him a foil of heroin. Apparently it just devastated Kurt, and the idea that he was inspiring or influencing these kids to use junk was devastating.”
In the end, Morgen convinced Kim that this is the vision of himself that Kurt would want to leave behind, if only as a deterrent. “My sense is that if Kurt were here to decide, he’d rather save one life than sell 100 million records,” Morgen says. “At the second screening of the film at Sundance, I was walking off the stage, and this young woman came up to me. She was wearing a Nirvana shirt, and she said, I’ve been struggling with heroin addiction for the past six years, and Kurt is one of my heroes. But seeing what he went through gives me the strength and motivation to walk away from it, and I’m telling you right now I’m never going to touch heroin again.’ We embraced each other, and I certainly felt Kurt’s presence in that moment. It gave me the confidence to know that we had done it right.”