Director Brett Morgen has managed to create one of the most incisive, revealing rock documentaries I’ve ever seen with HBO’s Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck. I’ve always loved Nirvana – Nevermind was one of the first albums I ever truly listened to and was mesmerized by – and I’ve spent countless hours listening to their music and reading about Cobain’s life, so it wasn’t exactly a stretch that I’d thoroughly enjoy this film. That being said, the film presents Cobain’s story and the machinations of his perpetually creative mind in such an intense and provocative way that it seems impossible not to be drawn in, diehard fan or not.

‘Kurt Cobain: Montage Of Heck’ Review

The film begins conventionally enough – footage of Nirvana opening a set at the height of their fame, intercut with interviews with his sister, Kim Cobain, mother, Wendy O’Connor, and Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic, then moving into the story of his birth and childhood, which was derailed by his parents’ divorce. The movie really takes off at about the 20 minute mark, when the film allows Cobain himself to recreate his own past through an audio recording that retells events in his adolescence that led to an early attempt at suicide previously unreported on. Cobain’s voiceover is accompanied by an animated sequence visually representing his tale and an orchestral rendition of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and the effect is electric in how completely immersive the story becomes. The film truly sets itself apart and finds its greatest insights through liberal use of Cobain’s own personal recordings, early demo tapes — including the eponymous Montage of Heck tape — journal entries and drawings brought into motion by clever editing and pairing with Nirvana or Cobain music, and home movies with his wife, Courtney Love, and infant daughter, Frances-Bean Cobain. Watching the course of his life in this manner, seeing how this obscure, troubled, yet creatively brilliant man becomes the biggest rock star in the world through these intimate glimpses into his personal and creative challenges and joys is as thrilling a rags-to-riches story one could ask for.

There were some true gems in the footage that stuck in my mind long after viewing the movie. One was a previously unreleased acoustic cover by Cobain of The Beatles’ “And I Love Her,” set to a slideshow of pictures expressing Cobain and Love’s adoration of one another. The cover completely lacked the usual rasp and grit found in Cobain’s vocals and was a real treat to hear for someone who practically worships both Nirvana and The Beatles. Another bit was a truly clever and brutal comic strip Cobain drew that featured a homophobic, misogynistic father-to-be who suffers a violent demise, again brought to life through the film’s masterful editing and pairing with Cobain’s music. One of the film’s surprises, to many viewers at least, may be its revelation in just how obsessed Cobain was with the Reagan era politics of his time, a common pre-occupation among the politically conscious punk bands he loved and sought to emulate, and with subverting gender norms and upending homophobia. His counter-cultural and anti-establishment predilections undoubtedly caused some of his later conflict with the fame he found himself submerged in.

Though Cobain would ironically become famous for hating the trappings of fame, the film presents a man with a strong desire to succeed and prove himself to the world. With journal entries that show Cobain’s methodical plans for achieving notoriety for his band’s music, it perhaps proves the old line that more tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones. The film faithfully tracks Cobain’s descent into addiction as his fame ascents, and it shows a man with violent, vitriolic anger not above making threats to a member of the media who he felt went too far in their reporting on him or his family. The movie convincingly makes the case that Cobain’s fame and the often unflattering, constant media attention combined with his hyper-sensitivity to any criticism or humiliation and his other personal demons and addictions proved a lethal mix that was bound to overtake the young artist in the end.

It’s in the documentary’s final 40 minutes or so that the pace and quality somewhat sag, but only by comparison to the riveting first half. My only real complaints are that we didn’t get a better look at the impact and reception of In Utero, Nirvana’s follow-up to Nevermind, and that there is too much time spent on interviews with Courtney Love. I’m glad she was involved with the film, since she is important to the story, but she didn’t provide enough insight to merit the time spent on her. Also, she claims that Cobain’s suicide attempt in Rome was a result of him having a psychic inclination that she wanted to cheat on him — we’re apparently just supposed to accept this somewhat outlandish claim on face value, but I don’t think it should have made it into the film, especially not in its final minutes. The film ends abruptly and with some disappointment, but then so too did Cobain’s own life.

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