TV Review: Cobain: Montage of Heck (2015)
All in all
My first memory of Nirvana was in early April, 1994. I was ten years old. I was at school and we had 'library time' with the kids in my class and class above ours. I came in and saw a group of kids sitting around one of those big, grey, rectangular tape decks with a pair of coil corded, oversized black headphones attached. They were all squeezed together listening to a tape one of them brought in. I came over and asked what was up. One of the older kids handed me the headphones and said 'this guy just blew his head off' (kids are great at exaggerating to induce shock effect). I put the headphones on and 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' was blaring out of them. I had never heard of Nirvana before, never heard the song before, but two seconds in I was hooked.
As I grew older and became more educated on the whole Cobain legend, my fascination with this band, and this person in particular, was one of both awe, that someone could be so talented and write songs that were so good, and dark fascination at this person's train wreck of a life. And I wasn't alone. During his life, Cobain was a fascinating figure, for all the right and wrong reasons, and in his death, his legend firmly embedded in the annuls of rock and roll history, his dichotomy laden and troubled personality is part of one of the most interesting stories in popular music.
Although there have been a number of doc's on Cobain and Nirvana and their music, Montage of Heck is the first 'authorized' examination of Cobain's life on film. This means his family has allowed maverick documentarian Brett Morgan total access to the Cobain archives, so to speak. And this film is chock full of audio clips, musical sound bites, televised interviews and home videos which attempt to bare all of Cobain in an attempt to better understand him.
And it works, for the most part. His mother had the great foresight to compile hours upon hours of home videos of him from birth to stardom. His wife took over where his mother left off, compiling hours upon hours of home videos of him in the thick of his stardom. These are the most disturbing aspect of the film. More so than the twisted drawings and manic depressive ramblings in his notebooks, the wall of horror movie sound collages he compiled on tape recorders and the smear campaign of media reports that attempted to show the world he and his wife were little more than self destructive junkies, it's the home videos that create the biggest impact. Such as an impossibly skinny Kurt doting on his daughter, playing with her and making her laugh and lavishing love on her. And in another scene a few minutes later nodding out in a heroin daze with her on his lap while Courtney Love attempts to give her her first haircut, while admonishing him for being high in front of his daughter. You see, in these sad clips and the interviews he was doing and the skyrocketing success of the band and the exaggerated reports in the media, a man deteriorating in front of your eyes. It's difficult to watch.
As we're led through Cobain's short life, a small group of people connected to him throughout give interviews. This includes his mother, his wife, his sister, an old girlfriend (the one he famously wrote 'About A Girl' for), his semi-estranged father and Krist Novaselic. There is no Dave Grohl. Some people have wondered about this and assumed, as the doc was done with the complete support and cooperation of Courtney Love, that Grohl didn't participate due to his (to say the least) difficult relationship with her over the years. In actuality, the reasoning is much less high school drama than that. This is a documentary about Cobain, not Nirvana, and Morgan wanted it to be a personal one with a small group of participants. And Novaselic was there with him from the beginning. So only one former Nirvana member was needed. Also, Grohl was apparently in the middle of a new Foo Fighters album and his own subsequent HBO doc so didn't initially have the time. That's about it. He did eventually give an interview which will probably end up as a bonus feature on the DVD/Blu-Ray release.
Because there's a lot of audio and music clips in the film, Morgan had a talented team of animators come in to supplement it with a series of animations. They're well done and interesting, but also a little cheesy. What works much better is Morgan taking Kurt's doodles and comic strips and lyrics and journal entries and animating them to supplement the music and dialogue. It looks very cool and is very effective.
I don't know that I would call Montage of Heck, as some people have, the best or most intimate rock bio ever. There are better ones. I would say though that it offers the most complete picture of who this complicated person was, warts and all. It doesn't give him a God complex or idolize him or present him as an avenging hero. If anything it's a good deterrent for people to stay the fuck away from heroin (as if they needed another) and to pity the people he left behind. It also makes you wonder why those around him didn't do more when he was so obviously self destructing before their eyes. As Novaselic says early in the film, with 20/20 hindsight, the warnings were all there for anyone to see. In his journals, in his drawings, in his demeanour, and most certainly in his songs. But too late is too late. A modern rock greek tragedy if there ever was one.