There’s a pervasive tendency in the culture to romanticize artists that die young. We put them on pedestals adorned with clichés about beauty and otherworldliness that suggest they simply saw things differently and were really intended for another plane of existence, that great beyond.
Kurt Cobain, the Nirvana front man who died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at the age of 27 in 1994, has been subjected to this treatment across a wide range of media since his death, mythologized as the voice of a disaffected generation and popularly regarded as a poet who simply couldn’t fit in.
Finally, finally, a movie has cast aside those dangerous oversimplifications to reveal Cobain for what he probably, actually was: a father, a husband, a son, an artist, a radical musical thinker, a great guitar player, a man with a great many failings; a human, in other words.
“Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck,” crafted by Brett Morgen from audio recordings, home movies, file footage, interviews and Kurt’s journals and artwork, is a biographical documentary assembled as a 132-minute collage, a mélange of sounds and images that is at once jarring and beautiful, discordant and poignant, and evokes the essence of this man as nothing else ever has.
The picture practically explodes off the screen. It’s loud and furious, hurtling through Cobain’s early years in Aberdeen, Washington, his discovery of punk rock, the rise of Nirvana and his marriage to Courtney Love with an intensity that probably reflects what it was like to live those experiences.
There are joyful and funny moments, as music history is made and Cobain’s sardonic personality is on full display. There are moments that are truly, unbearably heartbreaking: Super-8 footage of a toddler Kurt smiling and laughing, scored to a lullaby rendition of “All Apologies” and the present-day narration of his mother; an animated sequence illustrating a teenage Cobain’s profound alienation; close-ups on his agonized journals and artwork; sweet, quiet moments between father and infant daughter Frances Bean.
It adds up to a rare experience: the sort of movie that stays with you for weeks. It’s the kind of movie that you think about on the subway and that leaves you teary-eyed in the shower, that makes you obsessively return to “Nevermind” and “In Utero” and to maybe think you might finally understand what Cobain meant when he asked, “What else should I be?”
Yet, the ultimate take away from “Montage of Heck” is this: There’s really no explaining any of it. The heart and soul defy easy comprehension; our inner workings cannot be codified. There’s no applying logic to the fundamentally illogical reality of what it means to wake up each morning and live another day.
We’ll never know why Cobain was so apparently unhappy. We’ll never know what led him away from his daughter and all those who loved him, from a life of riches and success. But what we do know, and what “Montage of Heck” so powerfully reminds us, is that he was here.
On TV: “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” is set to premiere on HBO Monday at 9 p.m.