Getting people in Seattle to go see a film titled Kurt and Courtney is about as easy as shooting fish in a barrel.
And turns out to be almost as stinky. Seattleites, including—and perhaps especially—those who didn't know Kurt Cobain, have a powerful sense of proprietorship about the dead star. Even KUOW's yuppie spokeswoman Marcie Sillman felt compelled to deliver a radio eulogy after his death. (Her searching exegesis? "It remains to be seen whether or not Kurt will become the John Lennon of his generation." Get the hook!) Admittedly, Cobain's wounded yowls got at people on a personal level. But his violent, perfect rock death has come to overshadow his life. Intentionally or not, Nick Broomfield's new documentary—famously banned at this year's Sundance Film Festival—is about the way we all licked, disgusted and thrilled, at the lollipop of his death.
Kurt and Courtney
directed by Nick Broomfield
opens Friday at the Neptune
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Most people have experienced the death of someone they love being co-opted. Sometimes when we're grieving a loss, it seems everyone who ever vaguely knew the now-dead person shows up and starts projecting their melodrama all over the place. In the case of Kurt Cobain, that death vampire is popular culture itself. I have a friend who was asked by Details to go to Cobain's house in Denny Blaine on the anniversary of his death and record what happened there. He refused—but there was another writer ready and willing. Maybe the rest of us should just refuse to participate as well.
Broomfield is known for his take-no-prisoners approach to the documentary. As with his most-seen film, Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam, Broomfield repeatedly puts himself in disastrous and embarrassing situations to get his story. Problem is, in Kurt and Courtney, he never exactly figures out what his story is. The early part of the film is yet another contribution to the hagiography of Cobain—Broomfield visits Cobain's music-loving aunt in Aberdeen, lingering on the seedy landscape of that quintessentially Northwestern Gothic city with all the love of someone who didn't grow up there. Next, he turns to an exploration of Kurt and Courtney's relationship. He interviews Love's ex-boyfriend, Rozz Rezabeck from the '80s Portland band Theater of Sheep, and revels in Rezabeck's condemnation of his former love: "Courtney, I don't care if you are Jesus Christ, and your attorneys are the 12 Apostles!" He interviews Kurt's former love, the sweet and straightforward Tracy Mirander. (Archivists of style will appreciate her model NW rock pad.) And he has the first of many encounters with Love's dad, Hank Harrison, who insists his daughter is responsible for Cobain's death. A proponent of "Tough Love" (he never seems to notice the pun), Harrison says that "kicking Courtney's ass" is his way of showing her he cares.
From here, the film transforms into a messy exploration of Cobain's alleged suicide, as Broomfield wanders far afield to follow rumors of Love's involvement, yielding some comic moments as he works with two incompetent "stalkarazzi" who wear unconvincing masks, run out of film at key moments, and clutch when they finally come face to face with the elusive Ms. Love. The Mentors singer El Duce—whom Broomfield meets through Divine Brown's pimp—gives Broomfield the finger and then tells him how Love offered him $50,000 to off Cobain. "I shoulda taken it." Broomfield's inability to get close to Love informs the film's conclusion: Courtney Love controls the media.
El Duce, the stalkarazzi, and Hank Harrison form a classic Broomfield triumvirate of bottom-feeders. Broomfield is a man who makes his art by lying down with dogs. In the past, the director has come out of such scenarios with a little slime spattered on him—but in Kurt and Courtney, he comes out positively awash in the stuff. His lack of ability to get close to the case renders him just another "fan" getting off on the dark glamour of Cobain's death. The film is clearly not finished, but what puzzles me is how he didn't even try to interview members of Nirvana and Hole—equally troubling is the omission of his interview with legit local scenesters Jack Endino and Dawn Anderson. Says Anderson, "Neither one of us said anything inflammatory about Courtney, so I guess he wasn't interested."
In Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam, Broomfield's best-known work, the director maneuvered around the shadowy depths of Hollywood, getting at the very core of Fleiss' story through interviews with her, her lover Ivan Nagy, and her rival, Madame Alex. He even gets LAPD chief Darryl Gates on camera, for Christ's sake. A line of Madame Alex's has sung through my mind for the last couple of years: "Hollywood doesn't want to be revealed." Broomfield's work has typically worked upon this tension between (very) public figures and the handful of things they want to keep (very) private. But in his latest, he focuses on the bottom-feeders, and he becomes one of them. And so do we, as we get sucked into the film. He makes us read the overdetermined text of the "mystery" of Cobain's death. And maybe that's a book we should just stop reading. The guy was a pop star. He died prematurely, which is sad. End of story.
Investigator Tom Grant's theories on the case