Headed for HBO on May 4 (with companion book to follow), this fascinating documentary portrait will have strong appeal in Seattle—even among viewers for whom, like me, Cobaniana seems a completely exhausted subject, two decades after the Nirvana front man’s suicide. It’s a vivid, impressionistic, and often contradictory profile that reaches deep into the Cobain family archives. Director Brett Morgen (The Kid Stays in the Picture, Chicago 10) spent an arduous eight years haggling with widow Courtney Love and the now-22-year-old Frances Bean Cobain, who controls the archives and executive-produced the picture. (Love her or hate her, Love relinquished her interest, but is prominent in home movies and a recent interview.)
Local music writer Charlie Cross, in his necessary 2001 biography Heavier Than Heaven, has been through most of the same material, but Morgan now brings it to life with animated sequences (by Stefan Nadelman and Hisko Hulsing) and more. The movie’s too long, though never less than engrossing, and you can see why Morgen wrestled so long with the editing. What a short, rich, and troubled life his subject lived.
All the contemporary interview subjects have a somewhat self-serving agenda here. Gentle, concerned Krist Novoselic comes off the best (no sign of Dave Grohl, however). Love is candid where that candor can burnish her unapologetic, tough-girl rep. (Her daughter isn’t interviewed.) Cobain’s family still remains rather touchingly baffled by their son. And his Olympia girlfriend, Tracy Marander, provides perhaps the best window into the transformation of an ambitious young artist who hunkered down in her house with a four-track recorder and his notebooks, laying out the blueprints for his future band’s meteoric success (seen in concert clips and MTV interviews).
It’s from that period that Cobain’s cassette-tape journals spring into animated vignettes. (Do I detect a trace of Charles Burns here?) The most remarkable of them, about trying to lose his virginity with a possibly disabled girl in Aberdeen, reminds me of a Raymond Carver story: concise, unsparing, brutal in its details, yet oddly compassionate toward all thwarted, unhappy parties. The episode ends in shame and a suicide attempt. There’s a mournful self-awareness here that colors the rest of the film. Even as Cobain grasps for success, there’s the parallel feeling that it’s undeserved and fraudulent. Long before heroin entered his life, self-disgust had seeped into his veins.
Like his source material, and true to the movie’s title, Morgen has made a fittingly unruly patchwork distillation of a messy, self-destructive life. Romanticism and myth have been cast aside. A tidy documentary would only be possible about a less talented, less tormented artist.
KURT COBAIN: MONTAGE OF HECK Runs Thurs., April 23–Sun., May 3 at SIFF Cinema Egyptian. Not rated. 132 minutes. (Note: Morgen will attend Thursday night’s opening for a Q&A.)