Director Brett Morgen distinguishes the biographical documentary by viewing himself as more of a curator than a film director. He locates unseen or previously discarded archival elements and orchestrates them into an experiential mode that understands insight less as emanating from authority-based reflections than providing an immersion within the subject at hand. That’s certainly the approach he took in a remarkable entry from 2010 into ESPN’s “30 for 30” series called June 17, 1994, in which media footage and coverage from the day is organized to recreate events without the intrusion of voiceovers or explanatory segments whatsoever.
Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck is Morgen’s attempt to apply this approach to the life of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, as previously unseen footage and audio montages from Cobain’s personal materials are collaged together in an epic-length documentary that seeks to stand as the definitive portrait of Cobain’s oft-contested biography. As much sonically as visually inclined, Morgen draws on track after track of Cobain’s music to offer a series of montages, each with a differing visual component. The film opens with images of 1950s America as a place of booming consumerism following World War II, but set to various grunge riffs that explicate Morgen’s aesthetic aims, as he attempts various forms of clashes between sound and image throughout. These were happy times for Cobain’s parents, but the seedlings of youthful dissent and aggression were already being sewn.
The film’s subtitle is the name Cobain gave to his early demos and Morgen takes this concept as a mantra, jumping from ’50s archival footage to Nirvana concerts to animated reenactments of Cobain’s adolescence, narrated by the singer himself through a series of audio recordings he secretly made as a teenager. The effect is something like a combination of Korn’s “Freak on a Leash” video and Richard Linklater’s use of Rotoscoping, as Cobain’s entries are treated as awkward misadventures that border on criminal, since Cobain explains his sexual encounter with a mentally and handicapped girl and a proclivity for property damage. These sequences offer not only Cobain at his most intimate, but find Morgen pushing the boundaries of autobiographical expression by imagining Cobain’s painful flirtations with suicide and rebellion as the visual materials of serialized fodder, suggesting of a satirical sitcom.
While Morgen locates these elements with an intensity that moves past a sense of totalized knowledge, Montage of Heck relies a bit too heavily on contemporary interviews (Cobain’s mother, Wendy O’Connor; Nirvana bass player Krist Novoselic; and wife Courtney Love), which serve as unnecessary qualifiers to the more unbridled sequences of ceaseless engagement with existing materials. Of these interviews, Love’s proves the most compelling, if only because she has seldom spoken about her relationship with Cobain following his death in 1994. Most notably absent from Nick Broomfield’s 1998 doc Kurt & Courtney, here Love appears willing to discuss the details, but Morgen’s questions are less pressing than comforting, gleaning insight into the couple’s heroin-fueled days spent with daughter Frances. Home-video footage of the couple is simultaneously fascinating and tabloid-level sophisticated, as the footage is shown untouched and displayed purely for its privacy and intimacy.
When the film tips away from offering footage and music as a symbiotic expression, it flirts with offensive moments of voyeuristic access that, especially in Love’s moments of nudity and Cobain strung out on heroin, uncritically fosters the sort of peep-show mentality that much of the film elides. Yet this is a rather brief portion of the film’s larger tapestry of cultural anarchy, seeking less to canonize Cobain as an “acne superstar,” as he writes of himself in a letter, than constructing a forcefully cinematic presentation of Cobain’s appeal, explained through the time period itself. By generally avoiding sweeping statements (sans O’Connor’s assertion that she knew after hearing Nevermind that “things were never going to be the same”), Montage of Heck is a worthy, unique addition to progressing the concert documentary’s formal traits.