Cobain: Montage of Heck

Brett Morgen's artful documentary uses home movie footage and Kurt Cobain's extensive journals to reveal the man behind the music

It was philosopher Seneca who opined that there could no true genius without some touch of madness, no greatness without a balancing thread of tormented corruption. Every so often, such quotes seem presciently designed to describe an individual. Of all the 20th century’s icons, the late Kurt Cobain was, arguably, the epitome of the Roman’s theory: genius has its costs. 

To label Cobain ‘mad’ and leave it at that is, of course, as simplistic as it is inaccurate, yet the musician’s life was not one marked by contentment and peace of being. His musical legacy, his now-ageless persona, defined a generation; it forged a genre. 

That those songs — shimmering, disturbingly fragile, played live in Belfast when Nirvana visited the city in 1992 — were born of an unsettled soul should appear somewhat obvious. For American documentarian Brett Morgen, however, the aim of his elegantly crafted Cobain: Montage of Heck is more profound. He crawls inside the Nirvana frontman’s singular consciousness, presenting to the world some semblance of the chaos engulfing an unspooled, utlimately heroin-addled psyche. 

Intense, exhausting and often unsettling, the film serves as a tragic fable, one depicting the downfall of a gentle creative force unsuited to the cruel vagaries of our species. As a searching record of Cobain’s life and broader success, Montage of Heck possesses flaws, but one cannot fault its heart or affinity for the subject. 

At the centre of proceedings, Cobain cuts a doomed figure. Morgen has secured a surprising amount of family footage, from a range of periods, and he melds them to an effective degree with frenetic interpretations of Cobain’s endless journal doodles, creepy animated depictions of his pre-Nirvana years and various talking heads from those closest to him: his mother, his father, his sister, bandmate Krist Novoselic – heartbroken still – and Cobain’s widow, Courtney Love.

Tellingly, daughter Frances, an executive producer here, does not feature to offer insights on a man she never knew.

Images of Cobain as a gleeful golden-haired child are both touching and strangely horrifying, proof that most of us were happy bouncing toddlers at one stage. Yet, Morgen also sprinkles in contemporary images of the suffocating strictures of small-town America in the post-baby-boom era – a confinement against which the teenaged Cobain could not help bucking. A sensitive youngster at sea in blue-collar Aberdeen, Washington, he would spend his formative years shuffling between broken homes, a reality that Morgen is quick to paint as sad instead of cruel.

That said, what registers as most interesting is the director’s clear effort to fill in the gaps, to reach beyond Cobain the symbol. His artistry courses throughout the documentary’s hefty running time (two hours, 12 minutes), though it merely forms part of him as a man rather than the whole of the abstract best captured by a single face on countless student bedroom walls.

In truth, his triumphs feel almost ancillary. While Nirvana’s pioneering of grunge forms a large, rowdy backdrop, Cobain’s own spiralling descent, spiritually as well as physically, takes precedence. The extensive home movies featured in the documentary’s latter half are remarkable, not only for their increasingly stark intimacy – the controversial Love is stripped, quite literally, of her coarse bravado – but for the fact that they represent a moving and tangible chronicle of those final years. 

A dependence on hard drugs and the nature of his self-destruction are facts long ago embedded in the zeitgeist. Behind Cobain's blank stare and plainly tortured music, however, there lay a loving father, a kind husband; these things were, perhaps, less easy to imagine until now. 

Morgen builds this narrative with precision and care, leaving an implication for us to take or leave: neither wife and home nor professional adoration and love for a precious child could save Cobain from himself or the dark spectre of ‘heroine’, whose addled corrosiveness nips at the edges of the couple’s superficially happy, if unhinged, existence.

Unfortunately, given their close ties and his own upward curve since his friend’s suicide, the absence of Dave Grohl is keenly felt. The Foo Fighters chief (and former Nirvana drummer) was interviewed by Morgen too late in his process to make the present edit and the contribution of a bona fide superstar — one of the industry’s gentlemen — who has spoken often of his personal devastation in the wake of Cobain’s death, would surely have made this the definitive paean it so aspires to be.

Cobain: Montage of Heck is currently showing in selected Movie House Cinemas.