There’s this interview with Kurt Cobain—it took place in Toronto in 1993 and aired on a Canadian TV station called Much—that shows a side of Kurt that I’ve never seen anywhere else. He’s so lucid, present, and engaged. Normally when you see Kurt on camera, it’s apparent that he doesn’t want to be on camera, and that makes it impossible to know who he really was. For whatever reason, for this one interview, he just seems so comfortable. He seems like he was being himself.
I didn’t start listening to Nirvana until about a year after Kurt Cobain died. I was a pre-teen, and I remember slowly getting to know Kurt Cobain over the next decade of my life through his music, books about him, and every bootleg cassette tape interview I could get my hands on. I idolized Kurt Cobain. But when I saw that interview, and saw these flashes of a new side of Kurt Cobain, I realized that I didn’t really know him, and that I never would.
Watching the new Kurt Cobain documentary Montage Of Heck is enthralling, exhausting, and surreal. Kurt has been dead for over 20 years now, and there’s something fascinating about finally getting to see candid footage of him at home with Courtney and Frances. It gives a look into the personal life of this this anti-media rock star who would rather spit at a camera than speak to one.
During a Q&A after a screening of Montage of Heck at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York, director Brett Morgen spoke about the movie that he’s been working on for almost a decade. To him, the key was getting Kurt’s daughter Frances Bean Cobain involved. She’s 22 years old now, and she came on as executive producer, essentially co-signing the project without playing a role in the creative process. Morgen said that without her, Kurt’s family members would have never agreed to go on camera. This documentary is the first time we see Kurt’s father, mother, and sister speaking about Kurt. When Morgen finished the film, he showed Frances and she told him not to change a single frame. She thanked him for giving her a couple of hours with the father she never got to know.
It gives a look into the personal life of this this anti-media rock star who would rather spit at a camera than speak to one.
Courtney Love spoke at the screening too, but she didn’t say much. It was the fourth time she had seen it, and she admitted that this time around, she felt ashamed at times. In the film, she speaks openly about doing heroin while pregnant. But she seemed alright with it—she’s happy with the way the film turned out, and she trusts Morgen fully.
That kind of outcome is rare with documentary films, especially with something this intense and, at times, invasive. Although Courtney wasn’t a producer, she agreed to give Morgen access to everything and anything—apparently there was a storage unit full of home recordings, and Morgen watched every tape and listened to over 200 hours worth of audio on cassette tapes that Kurt made. Throughout the movie, Kurt is both the subject and the narrator; his voice recordings help tell the story as much as any of the family members and loved ones did. There is also some incredible audio of demos and outtakes, including Kurt’s chilling cover of The Beatles’ “And I Love Her.”
Montage of Heck focuses in on themes of shame and ridicule, feelings that surfaced at a young age for Kurt. The film succeeds in humanizing Kurt by exposing some deeply personal, unseen footage and unheard audio. At times, it almost feels like we’re unashamedly gawking at this footage of a private rock star who has been dead for 20 years—which, of course, we are.
There is one scene that takes place in a bathroom—it’s a highlight of the movie and a scene that is captivating in its intimacy. Kurt is shirtless, shaving his face while Courtney jokes around with him and flashes the camera. After so much time has passed, seeing this kind of footage of Kurt Cobain in such a personal setting is deeply affecting. There’s something almost eerie about it, knowing how the story played out, but in that brief moment watching him smiling and laughing in a bathroom, you start to feel like you’re really entering his life. Part of the allure of watching it is knowing that you were never supposed to see it. It somehow feels okay, because his daughter Frances said it’s okay, and Courtney Love said it’s okay, and by agreeing to being part of this film, Kurt’s father, mother, and sister said it’s okay. But it still feels unsettling.
Kurt Cobain is dead, so I’ll leave it up to his loved ones to decide what the world gets to see, but I personally felt a little guilty for watching parts of this movie. I wondered if making this public was something Kurt would have wanted, and if that should matter. I wondered if director Brett Morgen’s desire to entertain eclipsed his mission to reveal what Kurt Cobain was really all about.
Are we really learning about who Kurt was as a person, or are we just satisfying the voyeuristic tendencies coded into our human nature?
Montage of Heck is engrossing, and the access is unparalleled. After 20 years of books and movies, this is by far the most personal you’ll ever get with Kurt Cobain. Watching it, though, I can’t help but think there is still so much more. A lot of what we’re seeing here is so interesting because it’s so personal, but I didn’t learn anything from that bathroom footage, for example, besides that Kurt was sometimes silly and joked with his wife. Are we really learning about who Kurt was as a person, or are we just satisfying the voyeuristic tendencies coded into our human nature?
When I look back on that Much interview that I’ve watched so many times throughout my life, it makes me sad that I’ll never really understand that side of Kurt. In Montage of Heck, even the lighthearted, funny moments are steeped in this theme of a troubled boy who grew up harboring feelings of abandonment and self-loathing. The drug-induced downward spiral sucks up the pieces of Kurt’s personality and swallows them whole. That may have been a big part of the story of Kurt’s life, but there was more to him, and you can see it in his laugh when he’s standing by the water in Toronto for that interview, talking about bringing a child into this world and being in love.
When asked to explain his songs, Kurt always refused. He said that he wanted the music to speak for itself, and he had no interest in explaining what things mean or why he wrote them. Montage of Heck certainly gives a gripping look into the personal life of Kurt Cobain. With his family members and those close to him speaking on his life, we get a clearer picture of what made Kurt Cobain who he was as a human being. It’s like a curtain being lifted on this fabled figure in pop culture, and it’s done with professionalism and due diligence of the highest level.
For any fan of Nirvana and Kurt Cobain, this movie is worth seeing, but it makes me think: Kurt Cobain never wanted to be a public figure. For him, it was always about the music. If you really want to get to know Kurt, go listen to a Nirvana album—that’s the most personal you can get.
Days after seeing Montage of Heck, I spoke to director Brett Morgen about the film, why he made the choices he made, and how he feels now that it’s done. Speaking with him changed my perspective. The interview will be published tomorrow.
Montage of Heck is currently playing in theaters across the country. It will make its HBO debut on Monday, May 4, at 9:00 p.m. EST.