Sundance Film Review: ‘Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck’

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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  1. Lanie Dubois says:

    Cobain did not shoot himself to death. What a horrible, distasteful way of explaining a shotgun (One shot) suicide. He did not shoot himself multiple times (In which “shooting himself to death would be appropriate), but only once.

  2. b says:

    Grohl was absent because he was too busy. Morgen interviewed him after the project was completed and he said that section might get put into the movie when it comes out in May.

    • Mike says:

      The only reason Grohl has a mainstream band is because of Cobain. How’s that for disrespect. Too busy, too busy to honor the person that allowed for him to play his shitty songs on the radio.

  3. Sam Holland says:

    I totally wish they had included his interview with OUT magazine back in the day, I forget what year. But he was also a victim of school bullying and that was a main reason they did the one video in drag. As a kid, like me, he went through hell, and just tried to find himself. A true hero, not only in songwriting and guitar, but in feeling the pain most of us go through in life and transforming into music. Kudos Kurt.
    We were not worthy!

  4. nick says:

    “Alleged suicide”

  5. eyalKC says:

    UNBELIEVABLE

    how many mistakes you made in a simple article

    such as:
    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.
    It has been well documented that Dave is absence from the film is due to late scheduled interview (as declared by the film director Brett Morgen at the film preview press confress )
    as well as the fact that COURTNEY LOVE and DAVE GROHL are in friendly terms for months now.

  6. Leah Conder says:

    finally! i cant wait for this! i still cant stand courtney. THIS is for the fans i want to thank the family for this.

  7. cltaylor12 says:

    It was made for Frances, and she is grateful for “the time given to her that she never had.” (See quotes from previous interviews). IMHO Bottom line, this film is for his daughter, to review it matters not. The only think one might take away from it is for the MEDIA to watch and do two things: 1. top making Cobain the poster child for heroin use and 2. stop blaming, slagging, persecuting or questioning Courtney’s love for her husband and daughter. once and for all.

    [Quotes about the making of the film]

    “How did Morgen do it? During an interview at the festival, his answer was definite and immediate: “Frances.”

    He’s referring to Cobain’s daughter, Frances Bean, who ultimately served as an executive producer.
    “I think that’s why a lot of people came forward with the footage they had been hoarding for years … People felt safe because it was Frances.”

    Although she had no say over what was in the final product, when she saw it, “she embraced me and said, ‘Thank you for making the film I wanted to see. You gave me time with my father I never had,’” she said.”

    Morgen accepted their help with one caveat: he would have creative control.

    “It was really important, given the history in the press of Nirvana and the infighting, that I was given final cut, so that the public knew that there was no influence from Courtney, Krist, (bandmate) Dave (Grohl), Wendy, Kim, anyone. This was my interpretation.”

    “Frances Bean is really… that’s why we’re all here. This movie is for her. That’s really what this movie is all about. Once Frances was on board, and Frances and I shared the exact same vision about what this film should be, everybody came on board. I think we all felt, me personally, as well as the others, Dave [Foster] and Krist [Novoselic] and everyone involved with Nirvana, [we] wanted to do this for Frances.”

    It’s for Frances. How do you ‘review’ something made from real audio and video that gives her time with him she could never have otherwise? You don’t.

    Why HBO is broadcasting it the same weekend The Avengers Age of Ultron opens, on the other hand, is a complete puzzlement.

  8. LOL says:

    How come American music is so crap now, then? If Nirvana were that good then the U.S. would’ve continued the tradition of creating credible bands, but they haven’t. American music is the worst stuff out there right now. It’s cringe-inducing embarrassing.

    • Mike says:

      Simple, it is trust fund kids who pay to play now, and those are the ones making “careers” as musicians.

    • cltaylor12 says:

      Because the ‘industry’ signed all the bands, took ownership of the bands’ product until the bands’s contracts ended, and in the meanwhile MANUFACTURED copy-cat bands. That and the advent of all of the shows on t.v. with singers, and you have the once gain brainless vanilla that is pop(ular) music. Will the next revolution come? I doubt it.

    • Ilya says:

      I think that good music is still out there – its just rarely on the surface. Besides, big money decide even more today than they used to back in the day – hence a lot of flash in the pan type of superstars and idiotic contests.

      At the same time, I feel that older people would’ve said that the music of our generation was/is crap – all that industrial/grunge/electronic/whatever and their music was so much better.

      Its a generational thing…

      • cltaylor12 says:

        You’re right it is a generation thing. How many people under the age of 27 have actually sat down with an artist’s LP and listened to it from beginning to end vs. just sound biting the singles? Very VERY few. How many ‘artists’ can actually MAKE an LP (something that starts, takes you somewhere, and brings you back around with thought and purpose)? Even fewer. Nine Inch Nails, Queens of the Stone Age, Foo Fighters (who are slipping at this point),….. MAYBE Pearl Jam,……(big Maybe). … its a generation thing.

  9. seattle1967 says:

    “One factor that might have been dwelt on a bit more is Cobain’s chronic stomach pain.”
    I presume you meant to type DELT. The fact is that Kurt was finally diagnosed with a pinched nerve….was in the process of changing his will, divorcing Courtney and moving away form Seattle and the music biz machine.

    “…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. ” What does this sentence mean by “pretty?”

    Kurt was shot AFTER he was dead, hence the lack of blood at the crime scene….and the shell expended to the right side while the chamber was on the other. No legible prints on the gun, pen, shells, drug paraphernalia or anywhere in the room? Rosemary Carroll, Kurt & Courtney’s attorney discovered a backpack that was left at her home and found that there was a note book with a “practice” page of handwriting that matched many of the letters found in the alleged “suicide” note. Who was using Kurt’s credit card for three days until he was discovered? Kurt was reported “suicidal” by Courtney who called the police while impersonating Kurt’s Mom, Wendy. She later admitted to this. Courtney ordered Tom Grant to call off surveillance of the Lk Wa home, then a few days later, suspiciously asked for security and lights to be installed specifically on the GREEN HOUSE/Garage. Conveniently allowing the electrician to “discover” Kurt’s body. She also created a fake alibi for the time period of his death by calling in an OD on herself. She didn’t OD and was released on bail. Kurt called Courtney after leaving Exodus treatment center and left her a message, with a phone number. Courtney later let it slip that there was a second note at the scene and she did not reveal it’s contents except to say that it wasn’t very nice to me and stated he wanted to get a divorce. She later burned this note on the advice of a Seattle Detective. who stated “destroy that note, it will do you no good.” The SPD declared the scene a suicide in a little more than an hour and never completed a forensic examination of the crime scene.
    How did Kurt inject 3 times a lethal dose (even for a addict) then neatly put away all his drug paraphernalia and roll up his sleeves, THEN proceed to place a gun in his mouth a shoot himself.
    There are NO incidents in the US of someone taking that amount of heroin AND then shooting themselves as the person would be incapacitated instantly. Courtney was not concerned with Kurt’s whereabouts and called in radio requests for her new record while TOM Grant was being misled and manipulated. Go save the American icon Tom…Courtney sarcastically stated to Mr Grant whom she supposedly hired to locate her husband.

    • cltaylor12 says:

      What he really diagnosed with a pinched nerve? I never read that. I do know the self medicating was for chronic pain and I do know that he even said to Michael A. in interviews at some point he will have to make a decision about it……but he also said that when Frances was born the pain went away. It must have been temporary.

      As far as all your nonsense about Courtney – Grow up. All those interviewed were true junkies and got paid (they would say anything). She was in LA, he left rehab. No one new where he went. The end, literally and sadly.

      • FOR FRANCES says:

        zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz…. FYI Courtney Love saved Kurt’s life several times over! If not for her, Kurt would have been dead from overdosing himself a lot sooner! You have no idea what you are talking about! Thanks to Courtney for the all access pass given to Morgan for this film to even be made! I was born and grew up with The Cobain’s.. lived right down the street… So I believe Wendy and Donald and the entire family and every friend here in Seattle that knows and actually knew Kurt..He was depressed and shot himself. Period. Leave Frances and The Cobains alone!

      • seattle1967 says:

        Grow up? I presume you think I’m a teenager, you are incorrect. I was born the same year as Kurt. All my comments come directly from police reports or Tom Grant’s public statements. Grant is the PI Courtney hired to supposedly locate Kurt. You should read more. Are you calling the Cobain’s attorney, Rosemary Carroll a junkie? Tom Grant certainly isn’t a junkie. Frances’ nanny at the time, Michael “Cali” Dewitt & his girlfriend saw Kurt at the Lake Washington house the night he returned from the re-hab facility. Michael told Courtney this info, but withheld it from Grant. At LEAST three people knew where Kurt was. By the way, Kurt didn’t “escape” from Exodus as Courtney told reporters as it was a voluntary facility. These are NOT the actions of a woman desperately searching for her husband. She even cut off Kurt’s other credit cards which made it MORE difficult for GRANT not Courtney, to locate Kurt. I’m glad Frances had some time with her father through this movie she never had before, but even she has distanced herself from Courtney both publicly and financially. Listen to “You Know You’re Right”-one of the last songs Kurt recorded.

  10. Brendan says:

    Just so you know, Grohl’s absence was due to his busy schedule and Morgen just managed to interview him a few weeks ago. The interview may be spliced into future releases.

    • FOR FRANCES says:

      Grohl was interviewed and they did not have time to edit it into the final cut. Frances and Courtney have been on good terms for years. Courtney and her daughter Frances are hugging..yes.. mother and child.. on the red carpet..pictures and all.. so google them and stop with all of your silly theories! ridiculous Tom Grant garbage!

    • cltaylor12 says:

      Also according to the film maker he came in with about 10 days left during post production where there was literally NO time to include anything he brought to the table, – AND the agreement was that the film maker would have complete artistic license with NO imput from any of the principles.

  11. Ilya says:

    Novoselic didn’t left the music after Nirvana – its just that none of his post-Nirvana bands (Sweet 75, Eyes Adrift) were particularly successful and faded out of view almost as soon as they got started.

  12. JDM says:

    You spelled “Morgen” wrong, and you misused “errata.” Otherwise a good review.

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