Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck (2015) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck (2015)

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Docomentarian Brett Morgen (Chicago 10, June 17th, 1994) brings his eclectic approach to the life of Kurt Cobain.  In Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck he assembles footage, recordings, and drawings created by Cobain along with interviews with friends and family to discuss the life and death of the troubled musician.

I wanna be your girlfriend

“I don’t know how anybody deals with having your whole family reject you.”

We hear this early in Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck. They come not from a friend, groupie, or otherwise distant third-party. The words are from his stepmother, spoken with an oblivious air that she had a hand in shaping the person Cobain came to be. While she speaks her husband Donald, Cobain’s father, has a gaze which drifts further away from the conversation and seems to be trying to find a happy place.

Montage of Heck is a stunning portrait of a man who grew up in the exact sort of family he shouldn’t have and formed relationships with people who understood him so well they were the ones who could really hurt him. What’s remarkable in director Brett Morgen’s approach is how clearly he wants us to understand this painful dichotomy in Cobain’s life. This may be a bitter pill for those who still worship at the altar of Cobain to swallow, because Morgen does not treat tortured genius as a miracle.

Morgen’s approach is multi-layered and dense because Cobain left a staggering number of recordings, writings, and drawings from Montage of Heck to pull from. The result is like few other biographical documentaries. Cobain was an experimenter, pushing the limits of his drug abuse and art to figure out where his limits lie, and Montage of Heck is similarly experimental in its approach. Instead of relying solely on archival footage and recordings Morgen creates a nightmare of experimental cinema which launches us directly into Cobain’s fragile emotions.

Morgan tries to speak with Cobain's voice as much as possible, bringing Cobain's drawings to life in skeletal animation.

Morgen tries to speak with Cobain's voice as much as possible, bringing Cobain's drawings to life in skeletal animation.

The results are rarely pleasant, but often illuminating. The height of the unpleasantness comes from an aborted sexual encounter with a girl whose previous experience was with her cousin. Morgen mixes rotoscoped animation with Cobain’s writings delivered by an unseen narrator in a flat, almost emotionless tone. This plays with Cobain’s image directly, showing an antithesis of the supposed apathy of Generation X as Cobain is practically an open sore. Morgen’s decision to have the words spoken in so flat a tone is important because the words are a pained scream all on their own – any attempt to punch it up would be playing into a conventionally painful domestic scenario Cobain rebelled against.

So Montage of Heck frequently offers detours into lengthy, nearly wordless passages where Cobain’s words, original animation, and unfamiliar takes on familiar tunes can form something devastatingly empathetic. There is no outward step to “understand” Cobain. Instead the nauseating assault of visual and aural stimuli creates the impression of feeling as he does. Morgen understands it matters less why Cobain was haunted and reported attempts on his life, but how he felt experiencing them. Cinema is like music in that no language needs to mediate the emotional immediacy of the present moment.

For those looking for the “why” behind Cobain, Montage of Heck presents damning evidence in the people of his life. It’s no surprise that Cobain seemed like such a distant prophet since the people who mattered most in his life treated him like mercurial signifier to the story of their lives. Listening to his family is a painful experience in how they continue to relate Cobain’s life and death less on his terms and more what his brief existence meant for that particular stage in their development. Even his mostly sympathetic ex-girlfriend couldn’t help commenting on how she saw her shifting role from mother figure, lover, or friend. She does not hazard a guess what this meant to Cobain, a mistake we watch so many in his life make on camera.

While much of Montage of Heck is packed with despair the moments of peaces in Cobain's life are lovingly recreated.

While much of Montage of Heck is packed with despair the moments of peace in Cobain's life are lovingly recreated.

The only person who comes off as trying to empathize is Krist Novoselic, the bassist of Nirvana, who recognized the determination not to be humiliated which could bring out the worst in Cobain. I can’t help but notice Dave Grohl’s absence when listening to Novoselic talk, but it’s easy to understand that absence in light of the painful Novoselic moments and consider how Grohl had been unable to make the time for the interview. Cobain wanted all or nothing, a fact Morgen reminds us of in each emotionally draining montage.

When the tenderness finally germinates in the birth of Frances Bean Cobain late in the film it’s like finding warm shelter in a blizzard. Cobain’s eyes in those photos are dripping with fear and care for his daughter. The simplicity and tenderness of that relationship is echoed in Cobain’s marriage to Courtney Love, but tinged with a nightmare. This means witnessing sweet gestures when he gets a crowd to express their love for her, and the horrific spiral of their shared addiction to heroin becoming obvious in a sequence where they sing to each other in progressively incoherent and violent ways.

Cobain eschewed the norm, and when he became the norm he rejected himself. Morgen’s film follows in kind, drenching the screen in a barely coherent spread of emotion. Montage of Heck exposes an open wound and asks us to cut along. If it wasn’t easy for Cobain, it should not be easy for us.

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Tail - Kurt Cobain Montage of HeckKurt Cobain: Montage of Heck (2015)

Directed by Brett Morgen.

Posted by Andrew

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