Montage of Heck opens with a recording of Kurt Cobain’s disembodied voice inviting the audience to view a rare insight into his life: “Hey, I want to show you something.” Interviewing close friends and family only, very few voices are heard, presenting an intimate portrait of the punk-rock idol. With Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic introduced as merely “Kurt’s Friend”, and drummer Dave Grohl’s interviews omitted from the final cut, the film is a documentary solely about Cobain, not the band from which he can no longer be disassociated. Portraying his life chronologically, Brett Morgen’s documentary begins in Aberdeen, Washington, as Cobain’s happy childhood is shattered at age nine by his parents’ divorce. Tossed between different family members, we are told that young Kurt became unruly and distant, triggering a succession of addictions fluctuating between music, art, drugs, his relationship with Courtney Love, his daughter Frances Bean Cobain, and culminating in his suicide. As stepmother Jenny Cobain says, “he was rejected” and “just wanted to be loved.”
While verbatim films run the risk of being boring or static, Morgen’s biography is alive: constantly animated with shards of music and montage, it becomes nauseatingly chaotic towards the end, paralleling the singer’s own dizzying mental deterioration. Striving to convey a sense of the man upon whose life it is based, the film succeeds in paralleling Nirvana’s grunge music, which provides a constant backdrop for the montage of Cobain’s illustrations (sometimes animated), journal entries, song lyrics, to-do lists, voiceovers and interviews. However, what drives the documentary is the footage from home videos, supplied by his mother Wendy Cobain and widow Courtney Love; the latter first approached Morgen in 2007 with videos of Cobain that she had never previously allowed to be shown. To fill in important moments without recorded footage, there are animated scenes provided by Stefan Nadelman and Hisko Hulsing. The clarity and realism of the animation is stunning, but would perhaps have been better suited to the film as rough sketches, to fit with the chaotic tone throughout.
Nonetheless, one of these remains the highlight of the film, as Cobain’s teenage years are shown in the first of the animated sequences. An orchestral cover of the band’s most recognised single “Smells like Teen Spirit” accompanies the scene, along with a recording of Cobain discussing these turbulent years. It is easy to understand how Cobain became so influential and iconic to a whole generation, as he is hauntingly honest about losing his virginity, acts of rebellion, addiction to marijuana, depression, and first attempt at suicide. Whilst several interviewees speak of Cobain having a crippling fear of humiliation, there is no embarrassment or attempt to conceal any truth in his confessions. The orchestral score is perfect for the scene, and, like the other Nirvana covers present in the film, it serves to illustrate the timeless brilliance of the melodies written, which need not be confined to a sole genre; the punk-rock essence still pulsates through classical instruments.
Both the start and finish of the film are strong, and the middle disorientates like a bad trip before the final curtain. The ending is blunt and sudden, paralleling Cobain’s own premature end: the film cuts off with little detail surrounding his death, or the interviewees’ reactions to it. Montage of Heck is both a study and commemoration of Cobain’s whole life – opening with his birth and ending with his death, it succeeds in exhibiting the obsessions of the musician, as well as his desire to be loved and his passion for music. While Cobain may be idolised in pop culture, a member of the notorious “27 Club”, here he is shown as another human being.