In the opening moments of Brett Morgen’s devastatingly intimate documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, there’s a series of Super-8 home movies narrated by the late Nirvana frontman’s mother. “I was head over heels in love with that child,” she says as the flickering image of a towhead with bright blue eyes and an even brighter smile waves at the camera. On a hissing old tape recording, she asks her toddler son who he is. And in the tiniest, helium-pitched voice, he replies, “I’m Kurt Cobain!” It just about breaks your heart. Could the live-fast-die-young god of grunge ever have been so sweet and innocent?
It’s been more than two decades since Cobain was found dead at age 27, the victim of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head—the intimations of which could be found in his lyrics and were known to his closest friends. In the immediate aftermath of his death, the myth-building began, as it tends to do with artists who leave us too soon. Since then, the narrative of Cobain’s life—on and off the stage and in and out of rehab—has become as familiar and ossified as gospel: the troubled Aberdeen, Wash., teen who started a garage band and vaulted to global superstardom, the sensitive soul swept up in a Sid-and-Nancy-like romance with Courtney Love, the battles with addiction, the overwhelming demands of fame, and the decision to check out. But as Morgen’s brilliant film (which also premieres May 4 on HBO) shows, the narrative was never quite that tidy. Normally I’m suspicious when a filmmaker gets into bed with his subject as Morgen has here. He had the cooperation of Cobain’s family, widow, and daughter. But that access merely allows the director to make Cobain’s story feel not only comprehensive and fresh but revelatory. Morgen gives us the man instead of the myth.
Montage of Heck begins at the beginning, showing us the bright, happy kid who sinks into restless depression (the “teenage angst” that later “paid off well”). He’s shuttled between his divorced parents, never quite fitting in or feeling at home. Through hauntingly animated sequences that bring the young Cobain’s scribbled journals to life, we start to sympathize with the loneliness that eventually led him to form the band that would become his surrogate family. From there, we see Nirvana’s underground success with Bleach, followed by the meteoric, multiplatinum success of Nevermind and all the adulation and attention that followed. Interviews with Love, bandmate Krist Novoselic, and Cobain’s first girlfriend flesh out the portrait and hint at the inevitability of the musician’s tragic path, including the most difficult scene to watch in the film: a home movie where Cobain seemingly nods off on drugs as Love cuts their young daughter’s hair. It’s uncomfortable. It almost feels too private. And some Nirvana fans, who like their icons unblemished, may choose to look away. But it proves that Morgen isn’t interested in hagiography. He wants to show us the real Kurt Cobain, warts and all. A