Perfect hindsight
Brett Morgen’s ‘Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck’

Nirvana headlined Britain’s Reading Festival on 30 August 1992, at the height of Nevermind mania, and the first footage we see in Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, a new HBO documentary about the Nirvana singer’s life, is of that performance. Rumours circulated, in the days before the gig, that Nirvana had broken up, that Cobain was dying, that his 12-day-old daughter, Frances Bean, had been born addicted to heroin. In response to this media circus, Cobain took to the stage in a wheelchair, while his bandmates joked about his failing health. He wore a long blonde wig over his own blonde hair, and a hospital gown. Sullen as Cobain could be – and Montage of Heck provides plenty of material to prove it – he was able to laugh at himself.

Other people laughing at him was a different matter. “I am threatened by ridicule,” Cobain wrote in a journal entry, one of many which director Brett Morgen uses in this film to illuminate the star’s inner life. With the permission of Cobain’s estate (Frances Bean Cobain, who was not born a heroin addict, is an executive producer of the film), Morgen has, true to the film’s title, created a montage out of Cobain’s life and work. Journal entries, drawings and cartoons are simply but effectively animated; home video provides an intimate glimpse of Cobain’s childhood, and, later, of his marriage to Courtney Love; live performance footage and excerpts from interviews give some sense of the rapid, pressured fame to which Nirvana rose. The visuals are tied together with a soundtrack that relies heavily on Cobain’s own audio collage of found sounds, called “Montage of Heck”, which he constructed painstakingly, using analogue cassette tape.

Twenty-one years after his death, there is still no shortage of appetite for raking over Cobain’s torments and motivations, but Morgen does a better job than many of avoiding hagiography, on the one hand, and tabloid prurience, on the other. Cobain’s journals often dwelt upon crude and abject themes: before settling on the band name “Nirvana”, Cobain wrote out lists that included suggestions like “Faecal Matter” and “Man Bug”. Though little of this material counters the notion that Cobain was a deeply troubled person, it also illuminates his musical ambitions. Too often, Cobain has been mythologised as a punk rock martyr whose fame was the fault of a greedy, uncaring world; the journals, and Morgen’s interview with family members, tell another story. Though his music was pained, it was not unpractised. Cobain studied hard: refining his lyrics, writing down guitar tablature, and noting the contact details of record labels that interested him, including Geffen, the major label that would release Nirvana’s second, world-conquering album, Nevermind.

“We want to be successful so that we can have a comfortable life,” Cobain told a journalist after Nirvana signed to Geffen, but he was deeply uncomfortable with that success. “Praise was difficult for him to take,” says Cobain’s mother, Wendy. Cobain and his band mates, Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl (the latter of whom is conspicuously absent from the film) were unprepared for the storm that engulfed them, and how could they have been prepared? Before its release, Nevermind was projected to sell around 150,000 copies. It has gone on to sell more than 30 million. On camera, Wendy Cobain describes her fear when her son played a pre-release copy of Nevermind to her. “You are not ready for this,” she recalls saying to him, sensing what was to come. In the telling, it feels more like perfect hindsight: she, along with Courtney Love, also interviewed, have had too many agonising years to dwell on what they might have done differently.

Love provides a startling revelation towards the film’s end: she considered cheating on Cobain, and believes that his sense of her possible betrayal (which she never acted upon) led directly to his suicide attempt in March 1994, a month before his death. Love has been blamed repeatedly for Cobain’s suicide, for his drug addictions, for everything that went wrong in his life – the film goes some way to restoring Cobain’s own agency, even if the problems that beset the couple are also made clear. “I love you more than my mother,” Cobain wrote to his wife – a telling and poignant statement. Right to the end, he was a lost boy.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford is The Monthly’s music critic.

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