Like every other socially outcast junior high kid in the early 90s, I was a Nirvana fan. Yet I never deified Kurt Cobain, and accepted his tragic fate with grace while continuing to enjoy his music, which is a reaction that I believe Cobain would have supported. By the time I got to high school, one of my best friends was a rabid Cobain murder conspiracy theorist, who would talk our ears off with speculations about Courtney Love arranging Cobain’s murder because Cobain was going to divorce Love while leaving her without a penny, and how Cobain’s death while married was the only option for Love to see any of that sweet Nirvana money. My friend would have had a field day with “Soaked in Bleach,” a sleek procedural docudrama that examines pretty much every conceivable detail of Cobain’s death as if it was the Kennedy assassination.
There could be a tendency among Nirvana fans to treat “Soaked in Bleach” as an unofficial continuation of this year’s excellent Cobain doc “Montage of Heck.” After all, the timeline in “Montage of Heck” ends a couple of months before Cobain’s death, which is pretty much where “Soaked in Bleach” picks up. However, the two films could not be further away from each other in style, tone, approach, and even genre. While “Montage of Heck” is a loving tribute to Cobain as a human being — “The man behind the fame,” to use an overwrought cliché — “Soaked in Bleach” is a glorified episode of “CSI” about the mystery surrounding the death of a rock star. The fact that the rock star happens to be Kurt Cobain is a secondary detail.
Not that this approach should be necessarily seen as a negative. Considering the staggering amount of amateur biographical Cobain documentaries that were released since his death more than twenty years ago, we need another one of those like we need a hole in the, never mind, I’m not going there. It’s easy to accuse “Soaked in Bleach” for many things, being a typical conspiracy theory documentary that makes many leaps in credibility in order to support its narrative being one of them, but a lack of focus is not among its faults. Apart from a thankfully brief bio about Cobain’s early days in his hometown of Aberdeen, Washington, told through interviews with his childhood friends, Benjamin Statler’s film, a labor of love eight years in the making, sticks to the mysterious details surrounding Cobain’s “suicide”.
Told through the POV of Tom Grant, the PI who was hired by Courtney Love to find Cobain a couple of days before his body was found, the docudrama relies on testimonies by Grant and those related to the case, as well as audio recordings made by Grant, which are then dramatically recreated like a made-for-TV version of “Zodiac.” I don’t think the “Zodiac” connection is far-fetched, since it’s obvious that DP Ben Kutchins heavily studied David Fincher’s unsung procedural masterpiece.
The dramatizations rely on such a heavy recreation of Harris Savides’ glossy yet color-drained digital cinematography, that one half-expects Mark Ruffalo’s David Toschi to show up eating Animal Crackers. The interviews are also handled in this style, which work against the doc’s goal of exploring only the flat truth. When the visual approach in what’s still supposed to be a documentary is so heavily stylized, complete with a fake rain effect behind the interview subjects, it becomes subconsciously harder to take the material seriously.
As far as credibility is concerned, “Soaked in Bleach” is a couple of levels above the usual nutjob conspiracy theory documentaries found on YouTube, but it’s not really on par with Errol Morris’ work either. I have to admit that the theories concerning the forensic details around the way Cobain’s body was found are enough to get the laymen to at least consider the possibility of reopening the case. Aided by levelheaded testimonials from forensic specialists and the ex-police chief of Seattle PD, it’s hard not to see some discrepancies in the suicide narrative, like the theory that Cobain wouldn’t have had the energy to kill himself after injecting ten times the usual amount of heroin, or the curious way the shotgun shell landed, which provides the Cobain murder theorists with their own magic bullet theory.
What don’t really hold water are the arguments against the hypothesis that Cobain was suicidal almost all of his life, which remain circumstantial at best and makes the doc look desperate to sell its murder theory. Yes, it might be possible that Cobain didn’t actually come from a family with a history of suicide, and that his suicidal lyrics and melancholic personality didn’t point to a realistically suicidal personality, but as we learned from Robin Williams’ sudden departure, sometimes it’s very hard to tell whether or not someone’s going to kill themselves simply via their public disposition.
Watching the dramatizations surrounding the case, where seasoned character actor Daniel Roebuck portrays Tom Grant, it becomes obvious that Statler might have been better served turning this material into a narrative feature. The dramatizations provide the most interesting and entertaining sections of “Soaked in Bleach,” as they build scenes with considerable tension and mystery. Apart from an odd decision to have actors occasionally lip-sync to actual recordings, these scenes provide the film’s highlights. Yes, actress Sara Scott portrays Courtney Love as an over-the-top insane and drugged-out harpy. But considering the footage we saw of the real life Love during the early 90s, I have to commend the filmmakers for dialing down the crazy.
If you’re a rabid Cobain murder theorist, “Soaked in Bleach” will undoubtedly reconfirm all of your beliefs on the subject. If you’re also certain that Cobain killed himself, I doubt that there’s anything here to truly convince you otherwise. If you’re in the middle like me, you might be open to the idea that a new investigation might be useful, while taking the rest of the story with a grain of salt. [C+]