With Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, Oscar-nominated filmmaker Brett Morgen gives us his second music documentary in a row, but the two are hardly of the same breed. His last feature, Crossfire Hurricane, is pretty good but also the umpteenth doc on The Rolling Stones. It didn’t have the special event status of his new film.
Sure, there have been other docs involving grunge icon Kurt Cobain, including Nick Broomfield’s Kurt & Courtney, AJ Schnack’s Kurt Cobain About a Son and David Markey’s 1991: The Year Punk Broke, the last of which was made while he was still alive. Those three are all exceptional in their own ways, but none are traditional biographical works like Morgen’s promises to be. Nor did any come close to this one’s length of 132 minutes.
Something this big and authorized and “definitive,” as it’s being labeled, isn’t necessarily better than anything that’s come before, but it’s sure to be different. And feature a lot more personal footage than we’ve seen in the past. There were some intimate home movies shared in the Patty Schemel profile Hit So Hard, yet they were still, as is clear in the trailer up above, not nearly so exhaustive as we’ll find here.
As someone who grew up during Nirvana’s rise in the early ’90s and listened to the music but didn’t pay much attention to Cobain’s private life or personality, I’m curious to see him really fleshed out by the guy who gave us the candid Robert Evans doc The Kid Stays in the Picture and the Yippie trial doc Chicago 10. The latter is notable for how much it shows the benefits of animation for documentary, and with much of Montage of Heck being animated, I hope Morgen is continuing to do important things with the form here.
The doc received rave reviews out of Sundance, where it premiered, and it’s continued the positive reception more recently at festivals like Miami and True/False, so far maintaining a perfect score on Rotten Tomatoes. Surely it will be met with such favor when it screens at SXSW next week and then when it makes its debut on HBO on May 4th.
Here’s a bit on the film just written from True/False by Ben Gorber for our sister site Nonfics:
Brett Morgen’s Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck is stunning for its intimacy, taking us back in time and putting us in the room with the brilliant and troubled artist. There’s material you expect in a rock doc – backstage scenes at concerts and bits between takes during the iconic “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video shoot. Then there are the volumes of home camcorder footage, particularly of Cobain and Courtney Love as they descend further into heroin addiction and are eventually joined there by daughter Frances Bean.
The film gets even more intimate with private recordings and sound montages made by Cobain himself. These are moments in Cobain’s own words never heard before. Morgen makes extensive use of animation to visualize these recordings and to bring the paintings and drawings from Cobain’s extensive journals to life. There are brief talking head moments with key people like Love, bandmate Krist Novoselic and Cobain’s parents, which help provide context, but for the majority of the film the viewer walks with Cobain.
In a touching Q&A at the most appropriate of venues, the Columbia rock club The Blue Note, fellow filmmaker Esther Robinson (A Walk Into the Sea: Danny Williams and the Warhol Factory) put it to Morgen that his was a film that could only be made by a fellow father. Morgen said he wanted to make the film for Frances Bean, who has no memory of her father, and recounted watching her and Love see the film for the first time.