Kurt Cobain is finally elevated to be this generation’s Elvis in this documentary that traded substance with chutzpah.
Is there still anything left to tell about Kurt Cobain or his band “Nirvana”? I was not sure about that before I saw this documentary by Brett Morgen and I am still not sure now, but at least I can certainly say I learned almost nothing new by watching Montage of Heck.
Montage chose an approach that is kind of problematic in itself, as Morgen tried to focus on “the man himself”, so to speak, concentrating on Cobain’s personal experiences while only slightly brushing the details of his musical career. I will elaborate later why this is problematic in my eyes.
We get to know young Kurt through an impressive amount of home videos, a good portion at the beginning is even solely dedicated to old amateur films showing Cobain’s parents as a young couple before he was born. Later, when material of moving imagery became more rare during his teenage years, the gaps are filled with footage of his personal notes and doodles (often animated) as well as CGI-animated (!) reenactments.
Later, a ton of concert footage from in front and behind the stage is thrown at the audience, till the film leads into its maybe most discussed part, unearthed videos of Kurt and Courtney in their apartment shortly before Cobain’s suicide. Scattered in between are interviews with mom and dad Cobain, his sister Kim, Courtney Love and Krist Novoselic, the long-time bass player for “Nirvana”. David Grohl, the legendary drummer is conspicuously absent. The documentary does not address Cobain’s suicide but stops at the events that happened a month before his demise.
No matter what the marketing or interviews with Brett Morgen try to suggest you, Montage of Heck is not some kind of unflinching look at of Cobain’s life that does not spare its subject, even if it poses as just that, but under layers of pretense it is a work of pure hagiography.
As I mentioned above, the documentary concentrates solely on Cobain as a person, tries to distill some kind of ultimate psychological truth by stripping away details like album release dates,music label names and sales figures, as it strives for the most “personal” approach to the man.
This strategy leads into a multitude of problems. First, there is a limit of how much extraneous information can be left out, as at some point it has nothing to do anymore with peeling away unnecessary trivia to get to the core but rather obscures and mystifies the person in question. For example, we are told that young Kurt spent big chunks of his free time listening to Rock bands and playing their songs on the guitar, but none of those bands are mentioned by name, so he could have either been listening to the “Little River Band” or “The Clash” or both, we never get to know his musical taste and how it evolved.
Which is quite an omission, because nobody grows up in a vacuum and while it is superficial to reduce a person to his/her taste to define his/her character, it’s also dangerous to ignore it -especially in the case of an artist- as it reinforces the immature and sadly still widespread opinion that having talent or being a “genius” is some kind of god-given quality, which does nothing but mystify the nature of creativity and devalue all external influences as well as the sheer amount of work that goes into producing a piece of art. That might be a notion that accommodates the world view of a 30+ year old Grunge fan who still thinks intense exploration of the inner self, speak navel-gazing, is the key to truth, but not one a documentary should adapt. We also never learn what he read and what painters influenced him, despite showing off his drawings.
And the expression “genius” gets thrown around a lot. A lot!
It does not get better in the second half, when Cobain is shown in his role as a fully fledged artist. Footage of “Nirvana” concerts is shown aplenty, but at no point the name of another Grunge band is uttered, the words “Seattle” and “Grunge” are maybe heard once or twice. According to this documentary it is unclear if “Soundgarden”, “Pearl Jam” and “Alice in Chains” even existed, apparently “Nirvana”’s music came out of nowhere and was channeled through Cobain in miraculous ways. Thematizing rather uncomfortable episodes like the alleged plagiarization of a Killing Joke song are of course absolutely taboo. Adding the visual stylization, to which I will return later, this “tunnel vision” perspective lends Montage of Heck a solipsistic and almost unreal note, rendering it completely useless as a document of music history. But is it at least successful as a portrayal of Cobain?
The answer is a resounding “No”. As much as it pretends to give us an intimate depiction of the man, Montage is always aiming to preserve the myth surrounding him.
Generally speaking, using interviews to back up the angle of a documentary is a dangerous affair per se, not only because of the subjectivity of the interviewed person, but also because it is easy to put words into the mouth of even very intelligent people and take individual statements out of context. Completely relying on the mere fact that interviewing people who were close to Cobain would lend extra impact and credibility, Brett Morgen seems to be satisfied with the simplest commonplaces – “I never wanted to have this crazy genius brain” says Cobain’s sister at one point- and every platitude is taken at face value and put front and centre, as long as it supports the common mystified perception of Cobain or reinforces its armchair psychology.
Even a glimpse into the “dark side” of Cobain’s soul does nothing to change that.
One scene that will or already did cause some ruckus is a reenactment of Kurt’s very first sexual encounter, based on recently discovered diary entries, depicted via a CG animation sequence (!). It recounts his first carnal experience with an overweight girl from a special education class in whose house he and his friends used to hang out.
It’s a difficult scene by its very nature, as it on the one hand shows Cobain in an unfavourable light and is hard to prove on the other hand. Who knows if he just did not make it up in his depressed juvenile mind? The inclusion of a scene like this would demand diligence, a non-judgemental stance and a good portion of scepticism.
Montage goes the worst possible way and exploits this anecdote while simultaneously glossing it over. There is no real valid reason why this episode needed a reenactment and the fact that is done via a generic cel-shading animation, accompanied by a voiceover narration from Kurt’s POV which sounds like it was done by an SNL spoof of a early 90s teen does not help the cause. Tellingly, it ends up being unintentionally reminiscent, both in terms of aesthetic and purpose, of the CGI re-enactments we know from the news that provide you with all the gruesome details of an incident in the most antiseptic fashion while sparing you with the grittiness. Hey, at least they had the decency not to play “Rape me” on the soundtrack during that scene!
But does it really add anything we did not know about Cobain, in what way was it relevant to include it? In the end, Morgen uses this sensationalist bit solely to add some edge to his streamlined vision of the myth, without scratching the legend itself. Everything has to serve the hagiography and if it has to be done with a crowbar to make it fit in and any efforts to make it appear a little more three-dimensional than it is, are pure pretense. Oddly enough, essential parts are again sidelined or missing, like Cobain’s stance on his sexuality.
This superficial stance is very well reflected in the style of the movie. Expectedly a film with the word “montage” in the title would feature an abundance of that stylistic device and Montage of Heck does not disappoint when it comes to quantity, outmatching all Rocky films combined in that regard. Qualitatively, they are rather underwhelming though.
A mechanical and unoriginal mash-up of old home videos and PSAs from the 50s/60s with clips from old Godzilla as well as other B- monster movies- wow, I have never seen that before!- are giving you the feeling this was an effort by a really smug film student. Even worse is the weird choice to animate almost each notebook scrap of Cobain and believe me, there are a lot of those, from song lyrics over diary entries to receipts for concert equipment. I cannot deny that there is an odd fascination to be found in looking at the notes and doodles of a mentally unstable person, but it gets old quickly and Montage does not allow them to unfold their effect for themselves, Morgen had to animate them in the most trivial fashion to hammer the point home- yeah, we get it, Kurt Cobain was a tortured soul, no need to go all “After Effects” on us!
And yet again, everything is taken at face value. Cobain’s anti-establishment and liberal views might have been well-intended and noble, but they are rather naive and simplistic and by far not untypical or original for a person at that age. Some notes reflect a juvenile perspective he would probably have refined later on or even felt ashamed of if he had lived on, but Morgen is not above celebrating those over-animated banalities with rousing music and pathos to show what a disturbed yet genius individual he was, without a hint of reflection.
To emphasize the narrow-minded angle I mentioned above even more, the soundtrack is featuring 99% Nirvana, mostly comprised of their biggest hits to boot. If you never liked “Smells like Teen Spirit”, you will hate it after watching Montage of Heck and if you like it, you will probably like it a little less afterwards, because this song gets a lot of play, sometimes in different variations like a cringe-worthy boy choir version or one with classical instruments. Nothing in this documentary is left uncommented, un-animated or in any other form unretouched, be it through sound effects or music, everything has to be sugar-coated with obtrusive, kitschy emotionalism. At the end, when the private footage of Kurt and Courtney in their shabby apartment spreads something that is close to some kind of authenticity, it’s already too late, as the smarmy and pandering tone of Montage we have been accustomed to by that point makes us suddenly feel like stalkers when we observe the couple fooling around half naked and playing with their baby. The lack of subtlety and the overabundance of artificiality of everything preceding this moment deadened our sensibilities so far that the sudden influx of intimacy leaves us with the shameful feeling of being involuntary voyeurs.
If Montage of Heck proves anything than it is the fact, that neither Nirvana nor Kurt Cobain are their own entities anymore, they are now properties of the fans and products that only serve to please them, not unsimilar to what happened to Elvis after his death.
It’s not a completely unexpected development, but the irony that this plastification happens to the band that assumedly killed off “Hair Metal” and brought back “real, authentic music”- a claim that is still open for debate- is sweet, especially as it is one of the main points “Nirvana” fans still love to quote. And this is where the movie hooks into, servicing a special tribe of “Nirvana” fans, guys and girls that are mostly over 30 years old, the group whose biggest accomplishment was “being there” when it* happened (it*= the rise of the Seattle scene ore Cobain’s suicide, alternately or both) and whose pride mostly stems from knowing what “real music” truly is. People who miss that “Nirvana” was preceded by bands who paved the way or that the commercialization of the band, which is still engrained in their psyche as the true cause behind Cobain’s suicide (well, in the eyes of some it’s Courtney Love) was partly perpetrated by the artist himself. Montage of Heck shamelessly picks that misconception up, concealing that it is actively contributing to the despised post mortem- exploitation by pretending to deliver a completely new and fresh perspective.
Of course that’s not true and this is the worst sin of the documentary: It is not sincere about being pure fan service, but poses as the ultimate work about Cobain and his art, which is ultimately damaging to all involved and portrayed parties. By including unseen footage and a few parts that are uncomfortable -like the story with the girl from the special education class- Brett Morgen kills two birds with one stone. First, and I repeat myself here, it suggests to the critics that his documentary is not a simple idolization but unafraid to touch upon taboos that might open a new perspective on Kurt, which is false as it is presented in such a glossy, sensationalist and mystified way that it is just bent into another factoid that reinforces Cobain’s myth.
Second, it mainly speaks to the fans by lending the subject of the documentary and- here comes the important part- the fans themselves a phoney sense of relevancy. “Yes, Nirvana is still the greatest band ever and yes, you don’t have to change your views on it or your idol Kurt. The new stuff is just here to give you a little fodder, not to question your fandom. You are special for being a fan and that little bag of stale feelings you associate with it is still valid.” is what Montage of Heck seems to say underneath. “If you have not lived through a certain time period, you missed the best parts”, didn’t we hear that before?
Any really valuable insights are carefully avoided by seemingly approaching the subject by spying into every crevice of his life, while actually staying on the surface and respectfully keeping the distance that is appropriate when portraying a saint. Depth is simulated by armchair psychology- he was a kid of divorced parents and had a miserable youth, you know a fate unlike any other Rock star ever had- and mysticism – he had a gift but it also was a curse; he seemingly created a new kind of Rock music totally on his own. “He was special, yet he was one of us” is the common mantra that pervades the fandom of Nirvana since Cobain’s demise. All the Jesus analogies are so tired by today and I am reluctant to use them, but I surely understand where they came from now.
I strongly disagree with Frances Bean about Montage of Heck being a piece of “emotional journalism”, as there is no real passion in this work, just a sense of narcissistic sentimentality. Furthermore, an emotional and an intelligent approach don’t have to exclude each other. As I alluded before, this approach is in long term damaging as it rather obscures any real impact and relevance Cobain may have had in favour of a tear-jerking nostalgia ride.
The second biggest sin of this documentary: Reinforcing the common misguided and narrow-minded notion that music history is a product of a few talented genius musicians, with all the other artists and bands imitating them and surrounding them like satellites. There is nothing more damaging, anti-intellectual and unfulfilling than the genius cult.
Other things you will definitely not learn in this documentary is how much Novoselic or Grohl, or Courtney for that matter, contributed to the artistic output to the band, that Nirvana was actually not the pioneer of Grunge but only its most popular representative and that it also already was already building a bridge from its gritty roots to bubblegum pop. Pardon this comparison, but it reminds me strongly of the multitude of documentaries that try to explain the essence of the whole fascist movement by psycho-analysing Hitler.
I usually try to avoid to take a defensive stance in my reviews, as they should stand for themselves, but I really wonder how Montage of Heck could receive a whopping 98% “Fresh” rating on rottentomatoes, aren’t at least professional critics aware of the crude manipulative nature of this pseudo-documentary?
If you are a Nirvana fan in arrested development, who likes to be manipulated and pandered to, this might be for you, it’s the cinematic equivalent of a Kurt Cobain plastic statuette. If you are interested in music and music history, a self-respecting Nirvana fan (does that exist?) think that Kurt Cobain would make an interesting topic for a controversial documentary (you don’t have to be a fan for that) or if you are just of the conviction that every documentary should at least hold up a minimum of sincerity: Avoid.