FILM REVIEW – Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck

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3.5 OUT OF 5 NUTS!

kurtcobain-montageofheckThe rise and fall of Nirvana frontman, guitarist and creative genius Kurt Cobain is one of the most fascinating yet tragic rock and roll storylines of the 1990s. Cobain and Nirvana shone as bright as any band had for years before everything came crashing down with Cobain’s suicide on April 5, 1994. Along the way were numerous highs and lows for Cobain, the band, and his family, many of which were played out in unflattering fashion in the national media.

There was a very human side to Cobain, however, which is revealed more intimately than ever in the new documentary called Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck. Currently airing on HBO, Montage of Heck is an aptly-named look at Cobain’s life and death, told through a series of interviews, animations, and chaotic collages of random film clips and images of Cobain’s writings and artwork. Montage of Heck provides a definitive look at Cobain the person, although the style in which the story is told isn’t always agreeable.

Montage of Heck begins with the birth and childhood of Cobain in Aberdeen, Washington, where Cobain seemed to be a happy young boy before things started to fall apart. Footage of moments such as Cobain as a baby, Cobain dressing in one of those store-bought plastic Batman costumes for Halloween, and Cobain playing Pin the Tail on the Donkey are examples of the happier, purer moments from young Cobain’s life that the film shares.

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Then at age 9, Don Cobain and Kurt’s mother Wendy O’Connor got a divorce, setting the stage for Kurt’s awkward and outcast teenage years. Kurt eventually descended into rebellion, drug and alcohol use, and depression, until the eventual discovery of punk rock put Kurt on the path to what would eventually become Nirvana.

Kurt Cobain’s life took a turn once Nirvana’s popularity exploded, which is where Montage of Heck takes a turn for the better as well. The portion of the film that explores Cobain’s youth sometimes feels uneven and too stylish for its own good, proving to work best when it sticks to the interviews and film footage of Cobain’s life instead of the animated sequences that depict Cobain as a teenager. Montage of Heck uses voice recordings to tell Cobain’s story in some parts, and the choice to pair animation with those recordings is an interesting one, but it doesn’t always make for a cohesive viewing experience.

Montage of Heck somewhat disappointingly glosses over the formation of Nirvana, but once the band takes center stage, things start to get captivating. Nirvana’s story is well-known already, as is the story of Cobain and wife Courtney Love, but that doesn’t make the trip through Nirvana’s lifespan and Cobain’s struggles with fame any less compelling. Perhaps the most powerful moments in the film come during the footage of the heroin-laced home life of Cobain and Love, which were followed by the priceless scenes of Cobain and Love with young daughter Frances Bean.

One of Montage of Heck‘s biggest shortcomings is the absence of any interviews with Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl. Love, bassist Krist Novoselic, O’Connor, Don Cobain, stepmother Jenny Cobain, and former girlfriend Tracey Marander make up the roster of interview subjects with the film, but Grohl was left out. Director Brett Morgen has said the film was already finished by the time Grohl did his interview. Perhaps Grohl’s interview will be seen in some form down the line, but the film doesn’t quite feel complete without him.

Despite the absence of Grohl and some of the film’s unevenness, Montage of Heck remains worthwhile viewing for music fans and must-see viewing for fans of Cobain and Nirvana. Montage of Heck is a revealing and loving look at Cobain’s life and, at its best, a compelling journey through the brief but wild and sometimes turbulent ride that Nirvana experienced. The film serves as the best way to get to know and understand Cobain, and after re-living Nirvana at its peak, it also serves as a reminder of just how much Nirvana shook things up in the music world, and that music could be well-served right now for the next Nirvana to come along and give it a kick in the rear.

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