It’s been more than 20 years since the death of Kurt Cobain, and while there have been numerous documentaries, books, and television programs devoted to telling his story, it’s difficult to point to any one account as being the definitive portrait of the Nirvana frontman. But Brett Morgen’s fascinating film Cobain: Montage of Heck is more than worthy of that title.
Chronicling Cobain’s life and career through never-before-seen home videos, sketches, audio recordings and diary entries, Montage of Heck provides an unprecedented look into the mind of one of rock music’s most iconic figures. This is the first film to have the full support and cooperation of Cobain’s family, and the wealth of material resulting from this partnership is staggering.
Most of the journal entries featured in the film have been animated and set to music, providing a unique and frenetic energy that seems to distract the audience from the fact that they’re being forced to read in order to keep up with the narrative. Sometimes they’re nothing more than a few short words, other times they’re entire pages of ideas and song lyrics and scribbles, but they all showcase a mind that functioned with the same sort of reckless abandon with which Cobain played music.
But the animation isn’t just limited to the words on the pages of Cobain’s many journals. Indeed, there are several fully-animated sequences that are combined with recordings of Cobain recounting anecdotes from various periods in his life. These scenes, from animators Hisko Hulsing and Stefan Nadelman, have an almost dreamlike quality, and breathe an incredible amount of life into Cobain’s own narration.
Montage of Heck is also peppered with interviews, with frequent quotes from Cobain’s parents, his first serious girlfriend, former bandmate Krist Novoselic, and even his widow, Courtney Love (conspicuously absent is Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl, who served as the band’s drummer for the bulk of their short career). Once again, the cooperation of these individuals provides tremendous insight into the series of events that led Cobain into his downward spiral.
But the most emotional material, and certainly the most difficult to watch, is a lengthy segment during the film’s second hour devoted to home video footage of Cobain and his wife. We see them holed up in their apartment during a heroin-fueled binge, with frequent cuts to news headlines about their drug problems, and Cobain’s angry handwritten retorts. We see them at home after the birth of their daughter, Frances Bean Cobain, taking baths together and cracking jokes, obviously in love despite the undeniable toxicity of their relationship.
Far from the sort of talking head style that is so common with other music documentaries, Montage of Heck instead offers the most intimate look at Cobain that we’ve ever seen. From the casual listener to the hardcore fan, every viewer can expect to learn something about Cobain that they didn’t know before, leaving with even more appreciation for his art, and more sorrow over his tragic self-destruction.