The day finally arrived. Monday May 4th, the much anticipated and widely acclaimed Kurt Cobain documentary Montage of Heck premiered on HBO. Named for a violently sporadic and twisted mixtape recorded by Cobain in 1988, the film garnered intensely positive reviews and as such, I was looking for a game changer. A documentary which not only captured the man’s genius but also depicted the human element so often left out of Cobain and Nirvana documentaries in the past. The film did not disappoint.
Consisting of hidden archival materials brought to the table for the first time by Cobain’s wife Courtney Love and daughter Francis Bean who was an executive producer, the film showed a side of Kurt which is often forgotten. One that the history books gloss over with demented tales of drug abuse and emotional instability. Segments of Cobain’s diaries juxtaposed over early demos of songs and haunting audio recorded by Cobain himself piece together a collage which showcases a man determined to be taken seriously, committed to feeling accepted, and above all else resolute in his need avoid humiliation.
Starting with home movies of the Cobain family in the early years, we see Kurt as a young and happy child sharing Christmas with family and always smiling. Interviews with Cobain’s mother and father indicate a loving household, albeit one with a darker underside. Kurt’s father Don wasn’t supportive of Kurt’s creativity and the verbal abuse he received from the man was something that stayed with him throughout his formative years. After his parents’ divorce, Cobain spent much of his early adolescence moving around between homes of relatives and friends. It wasn’t until Kurt found the Underground that he felt truly accepted and from there on out, he was in the fast lane.
The early Nirvana footage is top notch and high quality showcasing favorites like “Dive”, “School”, and “Floyd the Barber” performed in houses or small basement venues to crowds of people varying in size from two middle aged workers from down the street to 15 disillusioned punks. The footage when interspersed with portions of Cobain’s notes and journals help provide detailed background into the enigmatic front man’s thought process and offer unique insight into the development of Nirvana. From a montage of handwritten band names to scribbled lyrics, the viewer see’s the other side of the famed rock band. It was something that grew organically over time, not a sudden outburst. Kurt didn’t have a grand idea beyond playing music he found to be meaningful and trying to get famous. Although as the world now knows, fame had a much darker side which only made itself clear to Kurt once it was too late, fueling his drug abuse and emotional insecurity.
The latter half of the film, besides dealing with the obvious fame of Nirvana through interview snippets and stadium concert footage shows Cobain in the privacy of his home. Between arguments with Courtney half naked in the bathroom, discussions in bed, and playing with young Francis; each show a man who cared deeply for his family. A man that was proud of his accomplishments and guilt stricken over his failures.In the end, Cobain was exactly what he claimed to be, a loving father and husband who despite his vices wanted nothing more than to sacrifice his own happiness for theirs. This is a film that any Cobain, Nirvana, or music enthusiast MUST see. It toppled all that came before it and all that will come after through its genuine honesty and forthrightness. It doesn’t attempt to gloss over the dark spots. Rather, it highlights them in a way that depicts Cobain as a product of his environment, family, politics, sexuality, and mental state which when combined birthed the kind of authentic creativity that comes along only once in a generation.