Twenty years ago on Saturday, Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain was found dead in the Seattle house he shared with his wife, Courtney Love. It appeared to be a suicide scene—there was a letter, and Kurt had shot himself—so Seattle Police did not conduct a substantial investigation. The music world mourned the loss of a rock legend.
Soon after, though, the questions began. Why were there no fingerprints found on the gun, as if someone had wiped them? Why was the private detective that Courtney had hired just weeks prior to Kurt’s death suddenly claiming he believed it was murder? (One can only imagine what today’s Redditors would do with this.) A portrait began to emerge of a troubled marriage and impending divorce. And five thousand miles away, an English documentary filmmaker was taking notes.
Nick Broomfield’s “Kurt & Courtney” is the product of the filmmaker’s no-holds-barred investigation into the inner life of Kurt Cobain and the events surrounding his death. Broomfield takes time earning our trust. In the initial interviews, it seems like he has an agenda. He conducts provocative and sometimes abrasive interrogations of Kurt and Courtney’s past friends, lovers, and extended family with a very clear intent to illuminate the the murder conspiracy theories. Broomfield: “I didn’t quite know what to make of the various conspiracy theories, but the more details I learned, the closer I felt to the truth of what happened.” About halfway through the film, however, Broomfield switches gears and begins trying to expose holes in the conspiracy arguments. It emerges that he’s playing devil’s advocate, a technique that proves highly effective as it elicits increasingly candid and disturbing responses.
But “Kurt & Courtney” is not, ultimately, a murder mystery. It’s a tragic love story. Kurt was gentle; Courtney was prone to violent outbursts. Kurt was a rapt listener; Courtney craved attention. “He kind of enjoyed that in her — it was something he couldn’t do, to be like a vampire of sorts for people,” a friend recounts. Close friends of the couple describe their relationship as all-consuming. The extreme highs and lows were exacerbated by mutual heroin and coke habits and a rock star lifestyle that mimicked the contours of adolescence. “Fame is a process of isolation,” Kurt’s friend remembers. “The reality of being famous is kind of frightening. Especially if you’re a kid that was used to being picked on anyway…it’s almost the same thing. Kids chasing you to beat you up, fans chasing you to get your autograph. [Kurt] was embarrassed by fame and the trappings of fame.” Kurt’s humility also extended into the realm of wealth.
A week ago, Seattle Police released previously unseen photographs of the suicide scene in anticipation of media attention surrounding the anniversary. The photographs reveal nothing new: a gun, a note, a body. Instead, they speak to the film’s message: We’ll never know what happened on the day that Kurt died. And to Broomfield, in the end, it doesn’t matter. “Kurt & Courtney” is a love story about two people who never knew love. In the end, one consumes the other.