There’s something surreal about watching a blond, cherubic child say, “Hi, I’m Kurt Cobain,” with a smile spread across his face. Of course years later this boy would become one of the most influential, not to mention nihilistic, musicians of the Nineties, the sandpapered voice of an apathetic generation.
Using a wealth of home-video footage, audio recordings, diary entries, as well as sketches and recent interviews, Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck is the first authorised biographical documentary about the short, sad life of the Nirvana frontman. That writer-director Brett Morgen was given unprecedented access to the Cobain family archives – the film was executive produced by Kurt’s daughter, Frances Bean – also makes it the most intimate and comprehensive.
Named after some of Cobain’s early demos, the film is told chronologically, beginning with his childhood in small-town Aberdeen, Washington. We hear from his parents, Wendy and Donald, how their separation transformed Cobain from a happy seven-year-old into someone more nruly.
Where the film is at its most piquant is when it’s grappling with Cobain’s marriage to Courtney Love. Footage of them at home, playful and clearly very fond of each other, is cleverly juxtaposed with news stories about her alleged heroin use during her pregnancy. A significant absentee from Nick Broomfield’s 1998 documentary Kurt & Courtney, Love doesn’t hold back here, discussing everything from infidelity to Kurt’s insecurities and their well-documented drug abuse. “His fantasy,” she says, “was to get to three million dollars and then become a junkie.”
There are caveats. For instance, why, given the devastating effect his parents’ divorce had on Cobain’s life, is his guilty-looking father used so sparingly? Frustrating, too, is the non-appearance of Dave Grohl, the drummer who joined Nirvana in 1990 and whose relationship with Love since Cobain’s suicide, 21 years ago this week, has been tumultuous to say the least.
Grunge fans, meanwhile, may lament the documentary’s failure to tackle the genre itself, slightly underselling Cobain’s achievements as a rock icon. Ultimately, though, Morgen manages to stay clear of hagiography, instead compiling an exhilarating piece of film-making – one that’s fully in keeping with Cobain’s virtuosity