Disclaimer: as a Nirvana fanatic (more than simply ‘a fan’) since they first called to attention disaffected youth in the early ‘90s, this wasn’t going to be anything other than a religious experience for me.
I’d pre-booked online, nervous that I might miss out on tickets with the rush of other local middle-aged Seattle grunge lovers flocking to the cinema to catch Cobain: Montage of Heck during its run at Shellharbour Greater Union. I needn’t have bothered; I could count on one hand the number of fellow devotees seated around me in quiet meditation as we keenly anticipated the start of the 9pm screening. Perhaps the session had been competing with the lure of booze and an ‘80s tribute act at the nearby workers club and had subsequently lost a chunk of potential audience to it? Regardless, the dedicated few were here, ready to be transported back to the days when ‘alternative music’ became so popular, a category for it had to be added to the music charts, and to perhaps find some answers to a story we already knew the ending of. It’s been 20 years since Kurt Cobain took his own life at the height of his fame and this is the first authorised biopic to have been produced in that time. The film’s title is said to come from the handwritten label of one of the many unheard, unreleased homemade cassette tapes Cobain had recorded his own audio onto.
Director Brett Morgen is known as the “mad scientist” of documentary filmmaking. Cobain’s wife, Courtney Love, gave him the keys to the archival storage facility where the accumulation of Cobain artefacts are kept in lockdown, and gave him free reign to do with it as he pleased. Throughout the film, you see how he has carefully mixed and measured portions of Cobain’s life remnants to produce a work that is at once familiar, but also uncovers some revelatory truths. Hand-scribbled lyric sheets, paintings and intimate Super-8 home movies are interspersed with interviews not with all the music industry talking heads you might expect, but from only a select few who would’ve attended Cobain’s funeral whether he’d been a rockstar or a janitor; friends, lovers, family and bandmates who played a main part in shaping the man he was.
Not surprisingly, a big part of why this film resonates so deeply is the audio. The film makers have crafted it in such a way that when the live concert footage begins, the surround sound becomes all encompassing, ripping right through you; suddenly you’re there in some seedy, sweaty club with the other punks, losers and square pegs getting lost in communal disconnection, anarchy and rage.
The end of the film has stirred some controversy, with some saying it’s too abrupt, there’s too many questions left unanswered. I’ll save the spoiler alert by not going into detail, but I will say this: this film is not about his death. It’s about his legacy – a legacy that has reached mythological proportions.