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.