Film Reviews

Montage of Heck is a Stunning Audio-Visual Hodgepodge of Nirvana

A post-Wikipedia biographical documentary, Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck finds Brett Morgen constructing a feature-length collage of notebook entries, demo tapes, rehearsal footage, home movies, archival photos, and drawings and artwork by the late Nirvana front man. It's an impressive, comprehensive assemblage, designed to impart not a point-by-point historical account but, instead, a larger sense of why Cobain was who he was.

Held together by new interviews with Cobain's mother, father, wife Courtney Love and bandmate Krist Novoselic, the film's portrait is one uninterested in relaying the standard-issue information so typical of biopics. Morgen understands that he's free to skim over Cobain's parents' divorce, when Nirvana formed, why Dave Grohl joined the band, how Nevermind and In Utero were recorded, and other, similar timeline-y vitals. He assumes that anyone with a passing interest in Cobain will know all that, or can easily find it through a quick online search. What he's after is greater: the intimate, urgent truth about his subject.

Morgen's approach also involves animating Cobain's sketchbook drawings, creating more polished hand-drawn sequences to dramatize audio recordings of the artist writing music in his apartment, and of course sharing significant concert performances, some rehearsals and outtakes, and many scenes scored to Nirvana tracks, be they by the band itself or by cover artists. One of the best of these: clips from the shoot for the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" video, set to a female choral rendition of the song.

The result is a stunning audio-video hodgepodge that, in almost every case, captures some underlying essence of the Nirvana front man. Specifically, it locates the way in which his unstable, divorce-racked childhood and teenage alienation and outcast status left him with a consuming fear of embarrassment and a burning need to create the very type of stable "home" and "family" he was denied as a kid. The film's often abrasive aesthetics are in tune with Cobain's and with his tumultuous life, which eventually involved superstardom he was unprepared for, heroin addiction he embraced, and marriage and fatherhood with Love that was at least partially rooted in screwy codependent need. While its unconventional approach eventually becomes a tad wearisome, Morgen's film proves a uniquely revealing exploration of the development, and eventual disintegration, of the heart and mind (and spirit) of a musician incapable of finding solace in, or transcendence through, his angst. 
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Nick Schager is a regular film contributor at Voice Media Group. VMG publications include Denver Westword, Miami New Times, Phoenix New Times, Dallas Observer, Houston Press and New Times Broward-Palm Beach.