Movie Review – Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck is Brilliant

Montage650I’ve been reading a lot of reviews from the local press and fans about the new documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck and to steal a classic line from Patrick Swayze, “Opinions vary.”

People not from here in general seemed to like the movie more, or perhaps I was just more focused and interested on what people here would have to say and how it would be received. Let me just say first off that I enjoyed the hell out of the film. It was brilliantly made and  covered all the important bases and while at times not pretty, it was a very honest and truthful creation or recreation as it were. Some of the criticism I read seemed to knock the storyline, that it was hard to follow and was a bit all over the place. Well, welcome to Kurt Cobain’s brain. I remarked to a friend after the movie that it was a trip and that some of the really trippy parts reminded me of how Kurt might have made this movie.

Also, we have to keep in mind that this is art. It is open to interpretation and this movie by default is going to mean something completely different to everyone that watches it – because we all had a different relationships with this brilliant man. During the Q&A after the film ended, a spirited audience member asked Morgen why he took Courtney’s point of view – to which an animated if not irritated Morgen replied, “The film is from my point of view”. He continued, “This is just my experience with the materials.”

The film delves into uncomfortable territory for some, including Kurt’s battle with heroin and his humiliation as a teen. Early on in the movie he says to the camera “my name’s Kurt Cobain” and it makes your heart melt for this innocent child and knowing what happens later only makes that harder to digest. His parents’ divorce also had a huge impact on him, and not in a good way, as it caused him to rebel even more than before. We are reminded that he was put on Ritalin at a young age to combat his hyperactivity and as we see in the vast amount of home video footage, he was a handful – and then some. The movie highlights his struggles with kids at school in Aberdeen and how much he seemed to hate it there. There’s a spot in the film where he’s talking to Buzz Osborne of seminal northwest band The Melvins and Kurt calls it an isolated hell-hole. Of course it was Buzz that had given him his first punk rock tape and that type of music, although probably not real popular in Aberdeen in the 1970’s, defined how Cobain was feeling and he was hooked. Music and marijuana were how he would cope with life.

The movie didn’t take the common documentary approach, and this would have been easy to do in Seattle. The director could have interviewed hundreds of people in the northwest that thought they knew Cobain well and some of them probably did but the approach was very minimal on the interviews, Krist Novoselic but not Dave Grohl (because of his Sonic Highways project). Morgen explained later though that having the ex-drummer and current Foo Fighters captain in there might have taken away from the flick and I wouldn’t disagree. Interviews that are included however are Kurt’s mom Wendy, his father and step-mother Don and Jenny Cobain, his ex-girlfriend and roommate in Olympia, where a good amount of the big hits were written, Tracy Marander. Cobain’s sister Kim, who spent a great deal of time with Morgen during the making of the film, also appears.

The movie instead almost lets Cobain make it. Morgen was given the keys to a storage locker that contained Kurt’s belongings and from that Morgen constructed this Montage of Heck, which Morgen reveals at the Q&A wasn’t the first choice or certainly not the choice the brass wanted to use. They wanted to use “Breed” instead but somehow the name Montage of Heck was leaked and the name stuck.

The day after watching the film I got a chance to chat with director Brett Morgen. I’m so glad I watched the film before speaking to him because watching it changed how I felt about it. Honestly, when Montage of Heck was announced, I had mixed reactions, partly because I was suspicious that it would be created to sell Nirvana T-shirts to the kind of people that wouldn’t have been caught dead at a Nirvana concert in the early days. As I said earlier, the film is not cute and pretty but rather it is northwest rough and gritty, raw to the core, just how Cobain would have made this. Which is another reason to commend Morgen on this film, he doesn’t live here (although he admitted that he loves Seattle’s love of pinball machines), and most of the time when people don’t live here and they make a movie about here, it’s all fucked up. This wasn’t that way at all.

Now the movie did meander a little bit but that was the expected results of pouring through boxes packed full of Kurt’s belongings. Notebooks, paintings and of course Montages of Heck. As Morgen stared at Cobain’s art, he no doubt was thinking, “What is KC trying to say, what would he have wanted this to say?” Once again, Brett Morgen is a visual artist, so this film is going to be how he interpreted the tragic life of Kurt Cobain.

At the 132 minute mark of this incredible film the screen goes black. That’s it. The movie is over. Not much warning at all. As I sat in the Cinerama, stunned at the abruptness of the ending, I realized that is exactly how we lost Kurt, and that was a brilliant way to end this intimate portrayal of Kurt Cobain.

About Glen Casebeer