AJ Schnack’s Kurt Cobain: About a Son is as gripping and revealing as Gus Van Sant’s Last Days was hollow and pointless. Schnack’s docu-diary is composed of audio interviews with Cobain recorded by biographer Michael Azerrad, accompanied by the music of some of the Nirvana frontman’s biggest influences (R.E.M., Butthole Surfers, Mudhoney, etc.) and set to often stunning Koyaanisqatsi-esque photography of his three pre-fame hometowns in Washington state (Aberdeen, the bohemian mecca of Olympia, and, of course, Seattle) as well as evocative animation ostensibly inspired by the singer’s notebook drawings. At first the images of landscapes and mundane everyday life in the Northeast seem disconnected from Cobain’s thoughtful narration, but seeing the towns filled with the students, cars, and street signs of today makes his absence from a world that continues without him even more potent. The different pieces of the film eventually synch up, ultimately painting a vivid portrait of a man and creative force determined to coexist both within and without the mainstream and underground music scenes.
Early in the film, Cobain tells Azerrad how, growing up, he pretended he was an alien, a fantasy that prefigured his feelings of dejection as a teenager and, later, as an increasingly isolated adult. After unknowingly befriending a gay boy at school, Cobain was accused of being gay himself, an outsider identity he never denied to the boys who taunted him in the locker room, and one that he eventually grew proud of. It’s no great secret that Cobain was a pacifist, and even his approach to starting his first band was passive-aggressive: Like a shrinking violet, he waited patiently for bassist Krist Novoselic to come courting. Belonging (or not belonging, as the case often was) became a central theme for Cobain, who, having come from a broken home, astutely labeled himself a “product of a spoiled America.”
If Azerrad’s recordings (as compiled by Schnack) are any indication, it was “spoiled America” that was responsible for Cobain’s eventual downfall. Juxtaposed with images of the Seattle Aquarium, it becomes apparent that constant media scrutiny was spoiling Cobain’s experience as a musician, and it makes one wonder if he’d even survive a day in 2007. Recorded just one year before his death, the late-night interviews reveal a public figure increasingly disturbed by the press’s interest in his personal life, particularly his relationship with wife Courtney Love and their daughter Frances Bean. (The final moments of About a Son illuminate the reality of the marriage when Love is heard calling to her husband to prepare a bottle of baby formula and come to bed.) In one interview, Cobain vows that even if he and Love ever split, he would—unlike his own father—always maintain a relationship with Frances. It’s a promise that, despite repeated references to shooting himself in the head, hauntingly clashes with his impending suicide, but one that—with films like this and, of course, the legacy of his music—he might actually be keeping.