Taped conversations between Nirvana front-man Kurt Cobain and music journalist Michael Azerrad form the attention-grabbing center of director AJ Schnack‘s otherworldly documentary “Kurt Cobain About a Son.” The true highlights of the film, more than Cobain’s never-before-heard commentary on life, death and the price of sudden fame, are Schnack’s artful technique, pinpoint editing, clever animation and beautiful collage of Pacific Northwest landscapes and everyday Seattle people. “About a Son” lacks the storytelling energy to pull in audiences only half aware of Cobain’s music and 1994 suicide. For music documentary devotees and Cobain’s passionate fans, “About a Son” will serve as a dazzling coda to Cobain’s creative legacy.
The highlight of “About a Son,” perhaps the very reason Schnack made the film, is the interview recordings between Azerrad and Cobain that took place over many months. While some content ended up in Azerrad’s 1993 book “Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana,” much of the film’s audio footage is being heard for the first time.
With “About a Son,” Schnack has made an art film, opposite in tone and spirit from his lively and perky film debut “Gigantic: A Tale of Two Johns,” about the Alt Rock duo They Might Be Giants. Part of what set “Gigantic” apart were its great fan interviews and bouncy chemistry between musicians John Linnell and John Flansburgh. The extraordinary content that distinguishes “About a Son” are the tapes of Cobain talking freely about life on-stage and off. With Cobain’s whispery words as his muse, Schnack has crafted a film perfectly synced to Cobain’s ordinary guy personality.
Possibly drawing inspiration from Gus Van Sant‘s 2005 film “Last Days,” a drama inspired by Cobain’s life story, “About a Son” is a quiet movie; one worthy of the description film poem. With its lingering shots of the Seattle cityscape, “About a Son” is more meditative than experimental. It’s also very still; despite Schnack’s use of archival concert footage. In those moments, “About a Son” comes alive with all the energy and excitement one expects from a Rock concert. Just as quickly, Cobain’s soft voice replaces the crowd noise and “About a Son” returns to its examination of a famous young man and father coming to grips with all the madness in his life.
Different from other music films, “About a Son” shares more in common with Jennifer Baichwal‘s documentary “Manufactured Landscapes,” about Edward Burtynsky‘s photographs of industrial wastelands in China. “About a Son” is a landscape film of the Pacific Northwest; emphasizing how Cobain’s roots helped determine the artist he would become. Unlike Nick Broomfield‘s controversial 1997 documentary “Kurt & Courtney,” which portrayed Courtney Love as the source of Cobain’s problems. Love plays a minor role in “About a Son.” When Cobain refers to Courtney in his interviews, he expresses regret, but lovingly so.
The disappointment hanging over “About a Son” is how Schnack never breaks free of the fandom bubble; meaning a film that will engage Nirvana fans and non-fans alike. “Dig!” remains the best example of a music doc so lively and compelling it doesn’t matter if you can tell the difference between its musical subjects, The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre. The film pulls you into its story of ruthless ambition. The only disappointment for Cobain fans will be the film’s lack of Nirvana songs. To Schnack’s credit, “About a Son’s” soundtrack includes an eclectic group of artists including Iggy Pop, Mudhoney and Arlo Guthrie. Besides, in this movie, Cobain’s dialogue takes precedence over the songs.