“Kurt’s brain was just constantly going, he was always thinking about something, I mean, there was always something goin’ on, you could just see it…it was awe-inspiring…but then as I grew up, I’m like…I’m so glad that I never got that genius brain” – Kim Cobain
The above quote from Kurt Cobain’s sister—played over a clip of Kurt about to perform for thousands of fans while also goofing around in a wheelchair and quoting Wayne’s World—could not serve as a better opening encapsulation of the film’s exploration of its subject in a microcosm: a study of a man caught between being a legend at the forefront of American music, a man in his twenties caught in the crosswind of the nineties, and being a man so undeniably different from everyone around him. Still, this talking-head opening is actually quite deceptive in introducing the form, style, and approach of the documentary. For rather than being an exhaustive historical study, or some cold and detached autopsy of his life, Montage of Heck instead opts for a much more cinematic and often painfully personal approach—one that offers a more emotional, insightful, and creative look into the life of such an incredibly complex icon.
Opening with poignant home-videos from Kurt’s childhood—Christmases, birthdays, and family get-togethers—these flashes into his early, happy beginnings are essential in painting a complete portrait of Kurt’s life, while also working to immediately situate the viewer into Cobain’s psychology to powerful, intimate effect. These formative years with his family as a cohesive unit, with Kurt at the center, lay the foundation for the turbulent relationship with his family in subsequent years engendered by his parent’s divorce. A divorce that led to feelings of misplacement, shame, and abnormality that would color his mood and personalities for the rest of his years and be filtered through the prism of his creative output.
Director Brett Morgen expresses all this, however, not through repetitive talking-heads or news footage, but predominantly through Kurt’s own modes of expression: his childhood drawings, his audio recordings, his journals, his writings—while familiar Nirvana songs (or covers) are played beneath these haunting pieces of youth that recreate the feeling of reliving a distant memory or dream.
In the transition to Kurt’s teenage and young adults years, however, Morgen adopts another—and even more effective—method of imbuing Kurt’s interior life through scenes of animation. These are, undoubtedly, the most creative pieces within the doc. Again, rather than the standard fare of attempting to illuminate a subject’s history through some dry distilling of information, these scenes force the viewer to feel what life may have been like under Kurt’s skin. The first of two particular highlights depicts his first suicide attempt, and brutally translates this emotional episode to devastating and memorable effect.
The next animated sequence depicts his time before making it big: living off his girlfriend’s wages while perfecting his artistic craft. This scene manages to make a compelling sequence out of the most mundane times of an artist’s life: Kurt learns to practice his guitar and vocal skills, write songs, figure out the band’s next step—as he spends his days and nights on the living room couch. But rather than casting a light on these days as a genius in the making, they instead depict the “10,000” hours of his genius in terms of mood—Kurt perpetually alone throughout the day, experimenting and failing, drinking, and following his muses wherever they may lead him.
Navigating out the days of burgeoning fame, the doc swiftly transitions into the heyday of Nirvana. Clearly, the film has made itself abundantly clear that it is not interested in devoting valuable screentime toward information that can be readily gleaned elsewhere. Instead, these major transitional moments—the band’s signing to Sub-Pop, their finding Dave Grohl—are understood through the context of Kurt’s trajectory. As a result, despite the variegated narrative paths that the doc follows through his art, journals, and the like, the storytelling always feels focused—as it is remains centered on making sure the audience experiences these periods through the prism of its subject own mindset. The pinnacle of this entire experience perhaps found in the latter third of the piece: when Kurt meets Courtney. Using home videos between the two during Love’s pregnancy and then the birth of their daughter, these sequences negotiate between both voyeurism and unbelievingly compelling glimpses into the couple’s point-of-view.
More than anything else, as well, they help elevate the documentary into achieving a truly cinematic feel—one that gives the impression that this character study into the life of Kurt Cobain is nearing its climax, as he journeys deeper down those darker aspects of his personality that have strained his psyche since youth. Now amplified by the pressures of both fame and family, these obstacles present challenges that are made even more sympathetic by viewing Kurt separated from decades of news report and articles that cemented his legacy as a rock icon. Instead, these home videos delineate a portrait of a flawed man grappling with those very issues of his nature that the audience has come to relate and identify with over the preceding two-hours—with the knowledge of the tragic destiny that awaits him making these videos all the more excruciating to watch.
While some may be disappointed that the film doesn’t revel in the aftermath of his suicide and the reactions of those closest to him, Montage of Heck finishes on exactly the right note. For the end of Kurt’s story is the end of Montage of Heck’s story. Just as it has so perfectly offered the viewer an opportunity into the interior psychology of its subject, so it ends at the tragic conclusion of Kurt’s life in abrupt, devastating fashion. Still, the success of the documentary lies in its ability to so beautifully saturate the audience in his life—leaving the viewer feeling like they learned more about the experience of the Nirvana frontman rather than just the facts of his biography. Accordingly, Montage of Heck shines as a truly unique piece of documentary filmmaking: one as complicated, creative and different as the man at its center. One that allows a profoundly powerful—and personal—look into the life and mind of Kurt Cobain.