Sundance Film Festival premieres Kurt Cobain
Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

A fascinating mix of archival and new materials creates a virtual autobiography for legendary grunge trio Nirvana's late leader.

The short, unhappy life of legendary grunge band Nirvana’s driving force gets probably definitive screen treatment in “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck.” Like fellow Sundance entry “Listen to Me Marlon,” Brett Morgan’s documentary creates a virtual autobiography largely from personal archival materials. Both films are absorbing and highly accomplished, the major difference being that while Brando lived eight incident-filled decades in and out of the spotlight, “Heck’s” equally fame-ambivalent subject spent just 27 years on Earth that have been extensively chronicled elsewhere. For some, that may make this two-and-a-quarter-hour recap almost too much of a good thing. But the mostly fascinating assembly, greatly benefiting from the access granted by surviving family members’ authorization, will make it a must for fans. HBO plans a limited U.S. theatrical run prior to cable bow on May 4; Universal is handling international theatrical.

Told as a chronological narrative via archival errata, recent interviews and some imaginatively repurposed elements, “Montage of Heck” (named after one of the playful audio collages Cobain made pre-fame) begins with recollections of a happy early childhood in small-town Aberdeen, Wash. Firstborn Kurt was by all accounts an energetic, creative, unusually empathetic kid. But his parents’ divorce when he was 7 triggered a tailspin that made him increasingly unmanageable, a situation not helped by his being shuffled from one exasperated relative’s home to another. The misfit student found some salvation discovering punk rock (and pot), starting what became Nirvana with his friend Krist Novoselic while still in high school. (After several early drummers came and went, permanent third member Dave Grohl joined in 1990.)

Cobain’s dedication, ambition and talent were immediately evident. The band began accruing a following after it moved to collegiate Olympia, then Seattle, releasing their first album, “Bleach,” on indie imprint Sub Pop in 1989. Jumping to major label Geffen for “Nevermind” in 1991, they made the so-called Seattle “grunge scene” — a much-resented label never spoken here — explode internationally with “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” a song and video that instantly rendered the entire hair-metal era absurdly dated.

But while Cobain loved writing and playing music, celebrity was an aspect of his unexpected success that he quickly grew to loathe. The “spokesman for a generation” tag grated, reducing his personality and message to one of suicidally depressed nihilism. His marriage to Hole frontwoman Courtney Love invited the wrong kind of attention — they were viewed as an unwashed Liz & Dick on heroin rather than booze — which turned even worse when a notorious Vanity Fair feature suggested both were still junkies during her pregnancy. A six-month layoff and Frances Bean’s birth, not to mention the release of 1993’s abrasively brilliant “In Utero,” made it appear that Cobain might yet come to terms with fame. Alas, no: He shot himself to death at home the following year.

Though those previously unfamiliar with the subject may not be completely sold by songs heard here mostly in cacophonous live performance, several of the pic’s most arresting sequences are de facto musicvideos, many animated (by Stefan Nadelman and Hisko Hulsing). A nightmarish manipulation of Kurt’s prolific drawing and painting imagery accompanies the searing “Scentless Apprentice.” Other tracks are illustrated by graphic-novel-style depictions of a cartoon Cobain’s creative process. Jeff Danna’s imaginative new arrangements of Nirvana compositions range from faux lounge music to a children’s-choir “Teen Spirit” accompanied by a ghostly re-edit of the punk pep-rally video that took MTV by storm.

It’s all absorbing stuff, amply conveying the magnetism of a conflicted leader who drew fanatical adoration, yet who one suspects wasn’t easy company (especially in tandem with Love). One factor that might have been dwelt on a bit more is Cobain’s chronic stomach pain, surely a major cause of his substance abuse and depression. Devotees will miss other parts of the story absent or underplayed here. (The grunge saga as a whole is barely alluded to; Doug Pray’s 1996 docu “Hype!” remains its definitive screen chronicle.)

But if “Montage of Heck” has a flaw, it’s that Cobain’s regrettably brief life has been so persistently combed through already that the pic can offer little truly new insight. Even the previously unavailable notebook writings and homemovies bear few surprises, unless you count the news that Courtney and Kurt loved each other, loved their daughter, and were nonetheless pretty trying to be around for anyone else. Video shot by rock’s “hottest couple since Sean and Madonna” (as Love wrote, presumably semi-jokingly) puts the Widow Cobain in a more sympathetic light than usual, though of course she may have withheld more strife-ridden footage.

It’s a pity that Cobain’s seldom-heard-from father, Don, chips in so briefly, given that various testimony suggests the subject had problematic relationships with both parents, despite mom Wendy O’Connor’s continued role as serene keeper of the flame. Other principal interviewees are Novoselic (who basically left music post-Nirvana) and major pre-Love girlfriend Tracy Marander, who supported him financially and otherwise during the band’s lean days. Though thanked in the end credits, Grohl (since the leader of Foo Fighters) is conspicuous by his absence, perhaps due to numerous public disagreements with Love over the years.

The variable resolution/sound quality of the archival footage just adds more texture to the pic’s diverse palate, which also makes much use of Kurt’s diaristic and lyrical scribblings as a graphic element. Tech/design contributions are tops all around.

Sundance Film Review: 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Documentary Premieres), Jan. 29, 2015. Running time: 132 MIN.

Production

(Docu) An HBO Documentary Films and Universal Pictures Intl. Entertainment Content production in association with Public Road Prods. and the End of Music. Produced by Brett Morgen, Danielle Renfrew Behrens Executive producers, Sheila Nevins, Frances Bean Cobain, Lawrence Mestel, David Byrnes. Co-producer, James Smith.

Crew

Directed, written by Brett Morgen. Camera (color, HD), James Whitaker, Eric Edwards, Nicole Hirsch Whitaker; music, Kurt Cobain, Nirvana; musical arranger/producer, Jeff Danna; music supervisor, Howard Parr; editors, Morgen, Joe Beshenkovsky; animation, Stefan Nadelman, Hisko Hulsing; sound recordists, Eric Thomas, Anthony Enns, Devin Goub, Jason Anderson; sound designer, Cameron Frankley; re-recording mixers, Frankley, Steve Pederson.

With

Wendy O’Connor, Kimberly Cobain, Don Cobain, Jenny Cobain, Tracy Marander, Courtney Love Cobain, Krist Novoselic.

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