SXSW review: “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck:” A portrait of the artist as a complicated man

Here are some things that happened to Kurt Cobain between September 1991 and September 1993, between the time he was between 24 and 26 years old, most but not all of which are discussed in Brett “The Kid Stays in the Picture” Morgan’s often fascinating and ultimately profoundly depressing documentary “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” :

"Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck"
“Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck”

He released an album called “Nevermind” with Nirvana, the band for which he wrote, sang and played guitar, on a major label; was criticized for it by some members of the punk rock community from which he came; was embraced by fans he was not expecting that were very much not part of the community from which he came; sold several orders of magnitude more copies of “Nevermind” than was expected by his label, who then saw him as a hitmaker; saw the punk rock community changed by his success; was anointed the voice of a generation by the sort of people who do that sort of thing; toured; struggled with chronic stomach issues; married a woman who was his equal in his ambition and a far more controversial media figure presence than he; recorded a follow-up to that breakthrough album the success of which he may or may not have felt pressure to equal or rebuke and dealt with a health-defining heroin addiction.

That is a lot for two years.

Cobain died by his own hand April 4, 1994. He was 27 years old.

And as Morgan points out, Cobain was a guy especially sensitive to the threat of humiliation, shame or embarrassment.

As Krist Novoselic, one of the film’s very few talking heads note, Kurt “hate being humiliated. He HATED it.” Which probably made all of the above that much more intense.

With a mix of never-before-seen home movies and audio recordings dating from Cobain’s childhood to a few months before his death, Morgan shapes a portrait of a multivalent artist who wrote prose, drew, sculpted and made spoken word recordings in addition to the music for which he is famous.

The uphill battle, of course, is that Cobain is one of the most examined popular artists of the 1990s, so Morgan had to find new ways to talk about the guy. So Morgan takes his unprecedented access to Cobain’s notebooks and family film and tells a chronological story, from the sweet, blonde boy from Aberdeen, Wash., with whom his mother Wendy was “head over heels in love” from the moment he was born to the scabby, desiccated young man 27 years later who almost nods out while holding his baby daughter Frances  (who served as a producer on “Heck”) for her first haircut.

There are only a few talking heads: Cobian’s mother Wendy O’Connor, his father Don, Cobain’s early girlfriend Tracy Marander, Novoselic and Courtney Love. (Nirvana fans might scratch their heads at the absence of both drummer Dave Grohl, and ex-girlfriend Tobi Vail, often discussed as a pivotal figure in Cobain’s brief life.)

And this is a Cobain movie, not a Nirvana movie. “Heck” moves from Cobain’s childhood and an early emotional clobbering when his parents divorced when he was 7. By teenhood, he had discovered punk and weed and girls, more or less. (In one of the movies more jaw-dropping rotoscope sequences, Cobain himself, on an archival sound recording, describes losing his virginity to a developmentally disabled girl. Yow.)

Much of the movie is given over to home movies of Love and Cobain, two people that clearly loved each other (they sure did like making out in front of the camera) and didn’t seem to mind living in squalor. “Heck” has a darker palette than, say “The Kid Stays in the Picture.” Cobain’s notebook handwriting and cartooning comes to life, while a few sequences animate some extraordinary audio (Cobain’s answering machine message to journalist Lynne Hershberg becomes a dark, vivid cartoon. The music selections are canny — that Rockabye Baby version of “All Apologies” is even more depressing than you might imagine).

As this is a movie about him and his words and art, “Montage” ends with Cobain’s death. It’s a striking portrait of a pivotal figure and perhaps the darkest, saddest movie of the festival.

“Montage of Heck” screens 6:45 p.m. tomorrow at the Marchesa and 11 a.m. Saturday at Stateside.

Author: Joe Gross

Joe Gross has covered books, movies, music and culture for the American-Statesman since 2002. He tweets at @joegross.

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