The very first experience I had with Nirvana’s music was rather odd. I couldn’t have been more than 8 or 9 (circa 1991), and I was in a shopping mall in Minneapolis, MN. I was with a group of college students and my Dad. As we walked the mall we came across a dude who was a “one-man band.” You know, like Dick Van Dycke in Mary Poppins, with the bass drum on his back, cymbals mounted everywhere, accordion in hands, and a decent singing voice.
This particular guy was stomping a beat and singing “Come As You Are”! As his raspy voice belted out “Memoria, memoria…” I ironically asked a student from Seattle, “What song is that?” His response was, “I think its a song called Memories by a new band… Nirvana or something. They are supposed to be pretty awesome!”
‘Nirvana? What a cool band name,’ I thought! Even at that young age, I was awe struck at whatever it is that Nirvana does to strike you. I had to know more. I had to actually hear their music. Growing up in conservative Montana, it was a bit harder to access their music, but thanks to older friends who knew a thing or two about music, I finally got to hear Nevermind in it’s entirety, sometime in 1992.
I was already hooked on hair metal and hardcore punk, but Nirvana thrilled in an entirely new way. Raw, sickly, lost, distraught, energetic and full of piss and anger. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” quickly became an anthem, and through the rest of the 90’s it was every kids secret anger song. I was 11 when Kurt Cobain committed suicide. I did not really even understand why or how, but I do remember thinking it really sucks that we won’t be getting more music from him. In Utero did not quite capture me the way Nevermind and Bleach did, so to me there was a hole left.
But that was it. He died, and the music with him. No replacement singer, no more shows. Nothing. Emptiness.
Kurt Cobain pushed to write and make music that he knew would leave some sort of impression on the world. Warts and all, the music and lyrics of Nirvana have a major role in shaping what we listen to today, and what we consider to be good rock and roll.
Interestingly enough, their three studio albums are in fact three different stand alone pieces of rock history, each produced by legendary producers; Bleach by Jack Endino (the Sub Pop recording guru), Nevermind by Butch Vig (mastermind behind Garbage’s success), and In Utero done by obscure punk legend Steve Albini.
We have continued to pump Nirvana jams consistently and have loved every second of it. As we are now at 21 years since Kurt’s death, and anything Nirvana, it is exceptionally refreshing to get new material; even if the material itself is being unlocked from whatever vault Courtney Love has locked it away in. The key to the vault tucked and hidden away in places no man or woman dare to even imagine exist…
But, thanks to filmmaker/writer/director Brett Morgen, much of this material has surfaced in the form of the new documentary, Cobain: Montage of Heck.
As you watch the doc and/or read this review, keep in mind one thing: What did Nirvana do for you? Good or bad, they did something; and namely Kurt did…something. So…what? Within Montage of Heck, we discover the personal and intimate grit that was Cobain’s life. It starts out really as a study on the breakdown of the American family, and what type of beautiful tragedy can be birthed through that. From his purely innocent and happy childhood, his parents divorce, the tossing of Kurt between friends and families houses, the early exposure to alcohol and drugs…all cohesively played a part in driving Kurt to create. We get to see the raw origins of that, and it is, by all intents and purposes, not pretty.
But, that is the way that Kurt viewed life. Not pretty, and sadly enough, not worth living. The way that he adopted this mindset as a kid is riveting and disturbing, and Morgen unflinchingly lets us see it all. From his first drawings of odd figures of violence to the tapes and recordings that Cobain mused together, this film does too good of a job at exposing us to the visceral audio and visual content. The use of animation to piece together his early life works brilliantly, as it helps progress his journey to birthing Nirvana.
It seems that if you were to wonder, what really was the origin of Nirvana, it is apparent that the rejection he felt from his family is the real spark that lit the fire for his band; and the other members were, in a way, merely along for the ride.
There are interviews with his parents, sister, old ex-girlfriend, bassist and friend Krist Novoselic and wife Courtney Love, but unfortunately not to the exhaustive extent that some may hope for. The interviews shed much light on the montage in sight that was Kurt’s life, but there is less vocal insight and much more visual and emotional insight. His exposed journals do most of the intense story telling.
I do appreciate this style of story telling, especially as an art form, rather than just trying to fulfill a medium or genre of filmmaking. Brett Morgen definitely has put together something special, and it lends too well to telling the sad story of one of America’s most tragic rise and falls.
The all too intimate and revealing footage of Kurt and Courtney at home makes me feel like I am watching two good friends being weird. There are times you forget that you are watching old footage of a deceased rock star and his wife, as they goof off in front of their camera, stoned out of their trees! Some will find it disturbing, others funny, and most true fans will strangely appreciate viewing these organic moments. T.M.I. Warning!
Perhaps the most emotionally wrenching part is watching Kurt being an overwhelmingly amazing and loving father to baby Frances. I was truly moved by that (as I also have a daughter that I adore), and found myself honestly saddened that Kurt isn’t here to keep loving her the way she deserves. Such a rare and beautiful moment captured on film, and I am so glad that those involved – namely executive producer/daughter Frances Bean Cobain – chose to put that in the film. Seeing Kurt in that light, as a father, brings a true and raw humanism to him that almost revives him for a moment in time. The power of a parent loving their child supersedes all the pain and torment that we can go through in this life, and I am grateful that Kurt got to at least experience that, even if just for a short while. Also, Courtney seems to be genuinely in love with her family, despite the rampant use of drugs.
As the rest of the film expresses the sadness and depression that Kurt continued to experience – from ridicule to stomach illness to harsh criticism – you do begin to understand as a human why he was the way that he was. Even though it makes no logical sense, you may even understand why he resorted to using heroin. Dare I say that it may shed a small dot of light on why he took his own life?
Never before has a documentary film ever done such scrutinous and tumultuous justice to it’s battered subject matter. Kurt Cobain was not a glamorous or neat rock and roller. He was sadly a drug addict and if it wasn’t for art and music, he most likely would have lived solely as one. Music did save him for a while; mostly his family in Courtney and Frances did, but somehow it was not enough.
That is sort of how this film ends. Because it is not really about Nirvana or rock and roll. It does not really focus on the music as most music films do. (I mean, Dave Grohl wasn’t even interviewed!) This one is all about Kurt. If you don’t wanna know, then do not watch it. But know that if you are into music at all, then you may want to learn where most of today’s modern rock artists – either knowingly or unknowingly – received their (disjointed) inspiration from. Even if modern rockers don’t associate with Nirvana, the effect that they left on the world of music is undeniable and relentless. Kurt created a monster of art and sound and music that will now more than ever live on!
Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck will chew you up and spit you out and leave you feeling like you either want to give Kurt a big hug or just lovingly talk some sense into him. Either way, he was who he was and we are fortunate to remember and benefit and learn from his life.
Rating: 5/5 Because of the beautiful way in which Brett Morgen told Kurt Cobain’s life story, and the compelling use of sounds, music, visuals and emotions. A must see for Nirvana fans and music fans everywhere.