After the screening of ‘Montage of Heck’, director Brett Morgen did a too brief Q&A with former Soundgarden manager Jeff Suhy, and if Brett is the biggest fan of his movie – he couldn’t stop raving about it, was asking us to tweet about it and tell our friends to absolutely see it in a theater before its HBO release – he also said this, when talking about the amount of people who were part of Nirvana and who ended up not being part of the film: ‘I don’t like information though’… ‘I am not into fact-checking in that sense, I am into the experience of it’… ‘facts and I don’t mean I am not into the truth, I am invested into finding the truth as anyone else,… I mean the emotional truth’.
And this was probably the best way to sum up the movie. During 150 minutes we are bombarded by a lot of colorful images, super 8 home movies, loud concert footages, animated pages of Cobain’s journal, cartoons, handwritten lyrics and doodles coming alive, it is a hell of a rollercoaster, and the emotions run high, blurring everything in a big hurricane of feelings, violence, rebellion and drug haze. If Morgen had wanted to make a film about the impressions that Cobain may have inspired him, the overwhelming sensations that a Nirvana concert may have left on him, I would be totally fine with it, and I would even said this is brilliant. Unfortunately he sells us his movie as the first authorized documentary about Kurt Cobain, and this is where I have a problem, because when it comes to documentaries, I care about fact-checking.
Is it possible to make an objective documentary about a subject as emotional as Kurt Cobain’s life? We all know how it ends, and so tragedy enters the scene at the first image, as soon as we see this adorable and very active blonde toddler playing with his guitar toy and waving at the camera. We all know he is gonna die at the end and it is impossible not to care about this kid, even if we are a casual fan, and Morgen holds us in this emotional realm since the beginning.
Most of the movie narrative will probably not be a revelation for many people, the happy toddler grows into a rebellious and unruly teenager after his parents’ divorce, but soon becomes very creative, making music, drawing and writing,… a lot, constantly, obsessively, writing notes, lists, journal entries, drawing everywhere, every feeling going through his head and it is hard to understand why each doodle Cobain has ever made has been preserved this way!
If I don’t have a major problem about the parts showing an animated version of Cobain, his own strange drawings get animated too and we just have to wonder which ones were chosen and which ones were discarded. Especially when Morgen tells us that young Cobain tried to kill himself for the first time by sitting on a train track, after feeling humiliated – I had no idea but did anyone fact-check this one? – and we know what to expect for the rest of the film.
Very few people got interviewed in the movie, again, Morgen doesn’t like a lot of information, but he apparently got the first interview the family has even given, and we get to hear his mother Wendy, his father Donald, his stepmother Jenny, his sister Kim, his first girlfriend Tracy Marander, Courtney Love, and his bandmate Krist Novoselic. And that’s it! Curiously, Dave Grohl appears many times in the movie, thanks to old footage of concerts and interviews, but he is never interviewed, although Morgen said he did interview him. He said the interview didn’t make the theatrical release, but during one of the numerous screenings, he confirmed that the interview will not even be featured among the director cuts of a future DVD release, because, well, Morgen doesn’t judge it necessary. And you get this absurd situation, where omnipresent Dave Grohl, who also made an HBO miniseries, ‘Sonic Highways’, is not even part of the documentary about the band that made him so famous.
Then, the story continues as we know, boy meets girl, or did she force the meeting? Again, the movie doesn’t give us too many facts and just lets the animated doodles and journal entries speak for themselves. But what the film shows us it is love with a big loud L, and it also shows us the ascension to success, fame and the beginning of the drug bingeing. ‘He wanted to get $3 million and be a junky’, tells Courtney Love during one of her chain-smoking interviews. One thing is sure, this woman can’t hold a camera, because these super shaky homemade movies are horrible and disturbing to say the least. What did she want to demonstrate when she gave Brett Morgen access to these footage? That they loved to get fucked up together? That this was their destructive lifestyle, paving the way for what was about to happen? We have to wonder, and I guess I have seen enough Courtney Love nude scenes for the rest of my life.
After Nirvana’s success and his marriage with Love, came baby Frances, and if there is a true love story in the movie, it is the one between Kurt and his daughter, this time there is only one way to interpret these shaky super 8 movies.
Kurt Cobain’s last months are summed up with handwritten song lyrics and drug scenes (the one showing the couple trying to cut Frances’ hair), while chain-smoking Courtney Love is the only one doing the talking. She describes the ‘Rome incident’, when she found Kurt unresponsive on the floor of their hotel room, as a suicide attempt and she even has a clear explanation which, curiously, she had never revealed in 21 years. He od’ed because he felt betrayed, because he had suspicions she was cheating on him. She admits to have thought about it but to have never cheated on Cobain. And we learn nothing else about the facts, the fact that Cobain’s own management company has always denied it was a suicide attempt, the fact that Cobain had written a note that Love conveniently destroyed shortly after. We don’t even get to hear what the family thinks about the incident and Love is the only one (re)writing Cobain’s story.
With such background, with selected lyrics like the ones of ‘I Hate Myself and Want to Die’ or ‘My girl, my girl, don’t lie to me/Tell me where did you sleep last night?’ (which Kurt didn’t even write)… it is very easy to build the drama you want. Add to this some of Cobain’s most disturbing drawings and we are directed right to the tragedy, the movie doesn’t even explore what could have happened during the last months and abruptly ends with the terrifying sentence that Kurt took his own life at the age of 27.
Didn’t Cobain say that ‘I Hate Myself and Want to Die’ was a joke? The problem is that after all this emotional roller coaster of footage showing Cobain violently breaking his guitar, all these journal entries mixed with song lyrics, all these animated drawings spitting blood and in-utero babies, all these drug-scenes, we actually begin to believe the story that Morgen is serving us. It is actually really easy to believe it and this is the problem.
Morgen said he made the movie for Cobain’s daughter Frances, who was so young when he died that she can’t remember anything about her father. ‘Courtney and Frances should be applauded for allowing this movie to be made’ he added after the screening, and Frances has declared that she was proud of the movie because it didn’t romanticize Kurt … but I think the movie precisely achieves this. At the end, I still don’t know who was the real Kurt Cobain, because a lot of pieces of the puzzle are missing.
In the drug-free footage, he appears like a very smart and funny guy using irony at any occasion, like a rebel refusing to be the voice of his generation, like a loving father who would have always chosen his daughter over rock & roll, and like a private person, who may have shared his journal with his girlfriend (as a note shown at the beginning of the movie suggests it) but probably not with the entire planet. But I already knew that and a lot of questions are left open. Many times during the movie we hear from his sister and Krist talking about Kurt’s strong desire to build a family since his own family had dissolved, and it is even more difficult to understand why he would have killed himself when he had this very young daughter whom he adored. The movie never reconciles the paradox of a man searching for a family but killing himself when he finally had one. As a matter of fact Morgen said during the Q&A that he found the suicide note in the private material he had access to, and asked himself, ‘Where is the rest of it? It doesn’t make sense!’ May be it was a sort of admission that his subject had totally escaped him.
At the end we have to wonder if ‘Montage of Heck’ is participating to the celebration of a hero still beloved by millions around the world, or is exploiting his death in the cheapest way… But everyone loves a good drama, right?
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