There was a moment in Brett Morgen’s Kurt Cobain documentary, Montage of Heck, when it dawned on me that I wasn’t entirely sure the Nirvana frontman would’ve wanted the film to be made.
The moment in question sees Cobain leaving his band mates to do all the talking during an interview, and you just see his head slowly slump into his hands. Another clip sees him verbalise his feelings; screw interviews, let the music do the talking.
Which lead me to really question Morgen’s film. Whilst it is in no way anti-Cobain – in fact, it proves beyond doubt that the man was a genius, albeit a deeply troubled one – it does seem to sit at odds with his ‘let the music do the talking’ mentality.
Because, we see passed the music; we see the man. And, in that regard, Montage of Heck works as a fascinating character study. Morgen brings Cobain’s personal diary entries to life, animating his crudely drawn doodles brilliantly, highlighting words and sending Cobain’s skittish (yet somehow poised) web of thoughts shimmering across the screen.
It’s the writing of a broken man, overwhelmed by the world that deified him. One silent diary entry sequence about his newly-born daughter, Frances, almost moved me to tears…
And Morgen weaponises the silence just as effectively as he channels the deafening noise. The animation is taken to the next level for a couple of beautifully visualised sequences that bring Cobain’s personal voice recordings to life. Covering some unassuming, but clearly defining, moments from his childhood, it powers home that fact that Cobain was a flesh and blood mortal (at least, at that stage). In these sequences, he almost plays as a Stephen King hero, with his narration threaded with intricately detailed teenage observations.
The super 8 footage is more of a mixed bag, and it’s during these segments that the 132-minute running time starts to take its toll. If anything, these sections suffer from a lack of clear direction (with Morgen having to rely on the edit). However, this is not a problem that extends to the talking head interviews with Cobain’s friends and family. These clips are used sparingly, but effectively, and they have a greater sense of purpose than the home videos. Morgen’s insightful, and intelligent, camera transforms subtle gestures into aching emotional outbursts. Seeing Cobain’s father squeezing the arm of a sofa becomes truly heartbreaking.
Jeff Danna and John Fee also deliver some really strong work re-arranging Nirvana’s tracks to fit with the action on screen. All the classics are there, but more interesting than those are the haunting choral reimagining of Cobain’s greatest hits.
Montage of Heck may not be the documentary Cobain would’ve wanted (if he would’ve even wanted one at all), but it’s the documentary he deserves. And, I came to realise, it was never for him; it was for us, and it provides us with the first real glimpse we’ve had into Cobain’s troubled soul since his passing.
You know what, Kurt, you waited so long for the world to catch up with you that you (rightly) gave up trying. But, eleven years later, and I think we might finally be within sight…