Last night, the highly anticipated new documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck premiered on HBO. The film, directed by Brett Morgan and with Frances Bean Cobain serving as executive producer, blends live concert footage and stylish animation with intimate home movies from Kurt's childhood straight through to his breakout success as the frontman for Nirvana.
While the documentary provides an endearing glimpse of Cobain as a baby as well as a blossoming musician, Montage of Heck isn't intended to add to the hero worship that has been bestowed on Kurt over the past two decades. There are plenty of heartbreaking glimpses of a soul in torment, ravaged by years of drug abuse and crippling depression. It's a brilliant documentary, but also a very painful one to watch, because we all know the ending.
Montage of Heck is filled with new insights into Cobain's personal life as well as the brief but revolutionary career of Nirvana. Here are five things that we took away from the engrossing documentary.
Kurt loved cardigans, even as a young boy:
The home movies that fill the first half of Montage of Heck show a young Kurt celebrating his early birthdays, surrounded by his loving family. Sadly, that home life would fracture following his parents' divorce, and Cobain would jump around from relative to relative, who would soon tire of his rebellious behavior and ship him off to another member of the family. But seeing Kurt so happy in those early home movies is so endearing -- and ultimately heartbreaking -- with a two-year-old Cobain even wearing a green cardigan to celebrate his big day. It was a look he stuck with straight through to the legendary Unplugged performance 25 years later. Seeing Kurt play around with a toy guitar as a kid (playing it left-handed, of course) hints at the talented musician he would eventually become as he turned the music world on its edge.
Cobain struggled with depression at an early age:
Kurt's mother, Wendy Cobain, spoke of times when her young son would rock violently in their rocking chair, repeatedly smashing it against the wall (a behavior he continued as an adult, as he's later shown hitting the back of his head against a wall during a video shoot). She became concerned about Kurt's behavior, and gave him medication that only made him worse. In one of the most devastating passages from the documentary, Cobain himself -- from an old audio recording -- tells of the times when he and his teenage friends would go over to the home of a mentally disabled girl and distract her while they would steal booze from her parents' basement. Kurt was awkward and shy, teased relentlessly at school, and desperate to lose his virginity. So he returned to her home alone, intent on having sex with her. He becomes disgusted with himself and the situation, and leaves, but rumors swirled around at school, and Kurt was called "the retard fucker" by his abusive classmates. That caused him to get drunk one night, weigh himself down with bricks, and lie on the train tracks awaiting the oncoming train. But when the train arrived, it was on the other set of tracks, sparing Cobain's life. That moment inspired him to eventually make something of his life, and create music and art that would give him a newfound purpose while silencing his abusers.
Kurt did a terrible Bob Dylan impression:
Once Kurt met his future wife, Courtney Love, the footage in the documentary shifts to home movies of the two of them, most of which was shot by Hole bassist Eric Erlandson. These clips show the young couple in the early stages of their love affair, playing around intimately while also losing themselves to addiction. For every affectionate scene where the two are joking together -- teasing the success of Guns 'n Roses and Axl's ridiculous snake dance, Kurt doing a hilarious, impromptu cover of Soundgarden's "Outshined," or Cobain's garbled impersonation of Bob Dylan -- there are clips of a drug-addled Kurt nodding off while holding his daughter as they try to give Frances a haircut, or having to leave the room before she opens her presents at her first birthday party. The humorous moments don't last long, and the depression and drug use routinely win out, leaving Kurt looking broken and lost.[page]
Kurt loved keeping lists:
Cobain's own journals animate much of Montage of Heck, with Kurt's words consistently augmenting the narrative of the documentary. Those entries would grow more twisted and acerbic as depression -- and the perils of fame -- took hold of him, with his frightening drawings and artwork coloring the film as well. But throughout it all, Cobain was diligent in his early efforts to get his band noticed and signed. He filled his journals with numerous lists of record labels, personal goals, and pragmatic aspirations for the group, as well as lists of potential band names (Fecal Matter, Pen Cap Chew, Bliss, and even Skid Row considered at various points), budgets for his rent/gas/food, and albums that Kurt personally loved. While in later interviews Cobain bemoaned his success and claimed to have never wanted it, his motivational entries in his journals suggest otherwise. Kurt worked diligently to get his band noticed, booked, and signed, of course never knowing just how popular his music would eventually become.
Kurt looked horrible with a moustache:
During one of the many clips of Kurt and Courtney in the bathroom together, we see him shaving. He leaves his cheesy moustache on briefly, and jokes about how provincial it makes him look (before busting out his brief, headbanging version of "Outshined"). Layered within that brief clip is a slight mockery of his moustachioed father, as well as all of the aggressive, testosterone-fueled "real men" who bullied and teased Cobain from an early age. That early mistreatment and abuse stuck with Kurt his entire life, leaving him irate whenever he felt he was being humiliated, while also distrustful of the praise and adoration of his millions of fans throughout the world. Cobain's mother even warned Kurt when he first played her Nevermind that the album was going to change everything for him, and he "better buckle up, because he wasn't ready for this." Sadly, that proved to be all too true.
Montage of Heck provides us with an intimate glimpse at the life Kurt Cobain lived off of the stage as well as on it, with startling examples of both his musical genius and his tragic flaws. There was indeed something in the way with Kurt, and this documentary provides a riveting look at his short life and the fractured legacy he left behind.
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