“Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck”, a Dysfunctional Marriage of Documentary and Animation
By: Sam Quattro
I was born 35 days after Kurt Cobain’s suicide. Obviously, I wasn’t around for the immediate impact his death had on the world, so I can only speak of the crater it left. It launched Nirvana into the stratosphere of untouchable bands that no one is allowed to dislike and turned Cobain himself into a mythological creature, a Christ figure dare I say. He died a cultural icon for Generation X, and through the 20 year nostalgia cycle has become a personal Jesus for Millennials. I’m not immune from that. I own pretty much everything ever put out under the Nirvana brand, bootlegs and official. I read the biographies and saw the documentaries. I’ve always been interested in Kurt Cobain. He was a big deal and he killed himself at a pretty young age.
So brings us to the topic at hand. Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck is a 2015 documentary film. Filmmaker Brett Morgen complied together miles of archival footage, writings, recordings, interviews from Kurt Cobain’s immediate family and friends, and animated reenactments to present a picture of the man Cobain was.
It truly is a montage of heck. Almost the whole film is done in segments of montages, detailing Kurt’s childhood, teenage years, the time before Nirvana, the time in Nirvana, his marriage to Courtney Love, and the short time with his daughter Frances Bean Cobain. It’s a cacophony of home videos and animated selections of Cobain’s diary entries, bored interviews during the Nevermind era and passionate concert footage, punctuated by present time interviews from Cobain’s mother, father, sister, ex-girlfriend, wife, and bandmates, who always comment on how sensitive he was, how he absolutely hated being humiliated, how he yearned for a perfect family, how he was always doing something creative.
There’s animation spread throughout the film, mostly in the form of bringing life to doodles Cobain had done in notebooks. But there are two specifically animated segments I want to talk about. One is a story from Cobain’s mouth and the other is a montage of his life just before Nirvana got together. They are both rotoscoped and feel sort of out of place in the scheme of things.
I’m unsure if the first segment is truth or fiction. It sounds like Kurt is reading it off of a page, so that and the ridiculousness of it makes me think it’s fiction. But who’s to say? It illustrates Kurt’s dissatisfaction with his home life, having been bounced around for years between family members, and how he turned to pot to cope with it. He became friends with some people he didn’t like because they were the only ones who could provide him with the drug. One afternoon, his friends take him to a girl’s house. She is a joke to them, being overweight and illiterate, and they only come over in order to steal her father’s alcohol. Kurt’s life worsens and he contemplates suicide, but he doesn’t want to die without knowing what sex is like, so he goes over to her house alone and propositions her. They try to do it, but Kurt is repelled by how she smells and leaves. He is later ridiculed at school over the attempted sex and tries to kill himself via train. He chickens out.
The second segment is really just an excuse to put various demos and miscellaneous recordings in a visual form. A shot of Kurt painting, playing guitar, answering the phone.
It feels disjointed to just have two animated segments sandwiched between all of the live action footage. They illustrate moments that cameras couldn’t, but those are only small moments in a two and a half hour time frame. Personally, I would’ve liked more or none at all. Having just the two makes those specific points in Kurt’s life seem like defining moments when perhaps they aren’t. But any animation that happens in the movie, rotoscoped or notebook, signals a moment in which the viewer has an as unfiltered moment as possible of Kurt. There’s no one behind a camera, no one prompting and asking him to say anything. It’s as Kurt as we can get edited to fit a time and theme. I can understand why there’s only two rotoscoped animations, supplies from a dead man are limited but that doesn’t change the conflict in cohesion. But it was nominated for an Annie in best animated special production, so what do I know.
All in all, it was a good film. I feel like it was as authentic as it could be. I was wondering during the interview segments if Kurt would feel like these people actually knew him, if we would get angry at what they said about him. They knew a version of him, but not his whole self. Only he knew his whole self and I think that this film tries to give us as whole of a portrait as it can. I can respect that. It’s not a conventional movie and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone on the street. If you have an interest in Kurt Cobain and have some prior knowledge about him, go ahead. If not, maybe start with something else like Kurt Cobain: About a Son. This isn’t a research paper documentary, it’s a Jackson Pollock painting of a life. Maybe more artistic than informative.