The medium of film is often used as a way to bring someone lost to life again. To take the traces that they left behind and stitch them together into a living thing that breathes with its own energy, that reanimates a spirit long gone. While introducing “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” at Sundance, director Brett Morgen said that he wanted to make something to give to Frances, Kurt’s daughter. A gift of knowing and seeing her father in a new way. With Frances as an executive producer on the film, the access to personal effects, family history, and music rights allowed Morgen to create what is both the definitive piece of work on Cobain’s life, and the most intimate. It’s a journey deep into the psyche of the tormented genius, one that is as all-encompassing and expressive of Cobain’s spirit as a film could possibly be. It’s a true achievement, both in documentary filmmaking and in preserving the memory and legacy of Cobain.
The film opens with a note that it is based on photos, journals, drawings, VHS tapes, Super 8 films, and audio montages. After a prologue with thoughts about Kurt from his mother, sister, and Nirvana bandmate Krist Novoselic, and a rapid fire credits sequence of ’50s TV ephemera, the film starts at the beginning: Kurt’s family background and birth. Home movies and photos show Kurt as a cherubic baby, growing into a towheaded, hyperactive kid, and a lanky teen. Kurt took his parents’ divorce hard and grew into an unruly adolescent who bounced between homes, never having any familial stability. This is all communicated through intimate and open interviews with his family members, who are calm and contemplative about his life, death, and talent.
Morgen utilizes animation (by animators Hisko Hulsing and Stefan Nadelman) in extremely inventive and varied ways to bring certain things to the screen. One sequence of classical animation renders Kurt’s recollection about his rough social life in high school. Another similar sequence takes one of his tapes of noodling around on guitar and creates a visualization of him at home, goofing around, planting the seeds of some of Nirvana’s classics. With access to Cobain’s journals and notebooks, Morgen smartly uses them as narrative devices, animating pages of to-do lists, notes, lyrics, phone numbers, addresses, and sketches to show the progression of Nirvana’s stratospheric rise to fame. But these journals also show the extreme emotions that overwhelmed the sensitive Kurt, from outpourings of love to anger at being humiliated or attacked.
Interspersed with these animations and interviews are all of the home movies and behind-the-scenes videos, from music video shoots, interviews on MTV, backstage antics, and live performances. It’s illuminating to see these different Kurts in the various venues: in interviews he looks like he wants to die, with Courtney Love he is funny and vulnerable, and when performing, he is a legitimate rock god. The videos show that he and Courtney are the exact same kind of weirdo together, for better or for worse. It’s also so moving to see footage of Kurt with a young Frances. For all the gossip about Kurt and Courtney as parents, and as co-dependent and enabling as they were for each other’s problems, they are incredibly loving and devoted, swooning over her.
As the film nears what we all know is coming, it illustrates with animation, journals, news stories, and interviews, the state of mind and body that Kurt was in towards the end. One question that the film obliquely poses is about the nature of his suffering and it’s relation to his art. It seems clear from ‘Montage of Heck’ that Cobain was a genius, whether he was suffering or not. His art was so imbued with his suffering that it propelled his artwork, while at the same time dragging him down personally.
And thank goodness Morgen got the music rights. There’s nothing worse than watching a film about a musician and not being able to fully hear the songs. This completely delivers with scorching live performances, the “Unpluggged” sessions, and lush orchestral and choir covers of Nirvana songs. The songs are mixed high in the soundtrack, often partnered with the wildly inventive and creative animation. If you’re watching at home, turn it up, because the best way to appreciate Nirvana is at a blisteringly loud volume. ‘Montage of Heck’ is seriously entertaining and enjoyable, but also a moving portrait of a man that many won’t soon forget. [A-]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.