Kurt Cobain has become so mythologized that individual pieces of his clothing have become iconic. His short life has been documented in so many books, films, archival recordings, and retrospectives that finding a new angle in which to tell his story should have been impossible.
Montage of Heck, the new documentary from Brett Morgen, is stunning in that it not only manages to find that new perspective on Cobain, but also boasts a treasure trove of never before seen footage, art and recordings. The Nirvana vaults have been so thoroughly ransacked at this point that the amount of unseen material in this film is nothing short of astonishing. This includes home videos of a young Kurt, a tape recorded interview he conducted with Buzz Osbourne of the Melvins and him and his wife Courtney Love giggling over a cruel and creepy fan letter sent to Sassy magazine after a cover story on the pair.
Aside from the unseen material, what makes Montage of Heck so compelling is its unconventional structure. In addition to combining the precious new video material with new interviews from Kurt’s friends, the film also combines animated vignettes of Cobain’s childhood, and fantasy sequences where Kurt’s infamous doodles, artwork and diary entries come to life.
Much of this is credit to Morgen, who has shown himself to be an inventive filmmaker in the past, most notably with his ESPN 30 for 30 contribution, “June 17, 1994,” a collage of television news reports from that day in sports centering on the O.J. Simpson Bronco chase. That film turned the notion of what a sports documentary could do on its head, and Morgen does the same thing with the music documentary here.
Montage of Heck recalls one of my favorite films of last year, Pulp: A Film About Life, Death & Supermarkets, a documentary on the terrific British rock group Pulp. That film deviated from the idea of a straightforward retelling of the band’s story and discography and instead focused on, among other things, their significance to their hometown of Sheffield, England. Morgen employs a similar tactic in Montage of Heck: It presents the arc of Nirvana’s rise of fame as secondary to the life and struggles of Cobain.
Several major points in the band’s career are instead presented differently than they would in other documentaries. The release of Nevermind is not recounted with the well-worn chestnut that it knocked Michael Jackson off the top spot or any observations on its recording, but with remarkable footage of an in-store concert at a record shop. The shoot for the band’s iconic “Smells LIke Teen Spirit” video is told through a wordless montage of behind-the-scenes footage backed by Scala & Kolacny Brothers’ choral version of the song.
Most notably, Cobain’s suicide is never explored. The film simply cuts to black before getting there, explaining his death with a card. It doesn’t want to glamorize or speculate at his death. It is perhaps the boldest of the films’ creative choices.
The most notable absence in the film is an interview with Dave Grohl. Although this seems to have been incidental and a talking head from him would have been welcome, I don’t think the film is weakened by him not being in it. After all, the focus is on Kurt, not Nirvana. The third member of the band, Krist Novoselic, is present not as the bassist for Nirvana, but as Kurt’s best friend. The film’s focus on Cobain the person also lets it shed a different light on his unfairly vilified wife, Courtney Love. Love’s interviews show her as painfully direct and honest about her late husband, many of them are tinged with sadness. Hopefully, this film will help mend her unjustly smeared reputation.
Montage of Heck is one of the most astonishingly well put together music documentaries in recent memory. It plays with the well-worn conventions of the rock star documentary and manages to do something differently with a genre that has become formulaic out of necessity. Unlike many other music documentaries from the past few years, the film is more interested in Cobain as a person instead of defining him by his discography.
By giving more weight to Kurt the person instead of Kurt the musician, Montage of Heck provides the fresh look at his story that has been desperately needed. It stands as a remarkable portrait of the most documented American lives of the past 30 years.