“He was searching for whatever made him feel like he wasn’t so alone.”
When Nirvana broke big, I was just a little bit too young to get it. I was old enough to like Smells Like teen Spirit and realise it was big deal, but I don’t think I really understood the seismic shift that Nirvana had initiated in music. A few years later, I was old enough to buy my own copy of In Utero as soon as it came out, and I liked it, but still kind of found the whole Nirvana thing a bit over rated. When Kurt Cobain died, I thought he was just another ‘poor me’ rock star. In the years since, I’ve definitely come to appreciate his song writing a lot more, and find his story more tragic than self indulgent. But it still took a month or so of rave reviews before I could work up enough interest to actually commit to sitting through Cobain: Montage of Heck.
Spanning his life from birth, to troubled childhood, to wannabe musician, to world conquering rock star, to tragic suicide, Cobain: Montage of Heck tells an impressively complete and thorough life story in a little over two hours. At this stage, people who love Cobain probably know all of these stories. And people not interested probably won’t commit to watching a little over two hours worth of documentary. But for me, as someone who knew enough about Cobain to know most of the broad strokes of his life, that never stopped me from being totally enthralled with this telling of these familiar broad strokes.
It also made me realise that my dismissal of him over the years has been a lot more about dismissing his sycophantic fans than it has been about the man himself. Sad fans banging on about how anti establishment he was, and how much of a rebel he was always made me think Cobain was a bit of a dick. But Montage of Heck shows that while he was uncomfortable with his fame and was very serious about making his art his way, Kurt Cobain was also determined to have his art seen, heard and appreciated by the masses.
Like its title, the soundtrack to Montage of Heck is just a little too impressed with itself and on the nose. A montage about his toddler years scored to a music box arrangement of All Apologies. His troubled teenaged years set to an orchestral interpretation of Smells Like Teen Spirit. His young adult years over the top of a tinkly piano rendition Lithium. There’s something so obviously manipulative about these soundtrack choices that just seems so antithetical to Cobain and Nirvana, that each reimagining of a classic Nirvana song made me a little angrier than the last. And I’m not even the kind of person who revers many of these songs.
And those terrible musical choices stand out even more when you hear the good ones. Because director Brett Morgan’s amazing access means he also has some awesome lo-fi demos at his disposal. And those crappily recorded demos are so effective in getting the gut wrenching emotions of Cobain’s music across, that the cheap covers end up seeming even more cheap and manipulative.
But in the end, the rest of Cobain: Montage of Heck is more than enough make up for those massive soundtrack missteps. We’re now well and truly far enough removed from Nirvana’s heyday and Cobain’s high profile death for his continuing legacy to be seen as a flash in the pan. Nirvana have now been solidified as a genuinely important, game changing moment in popular music and popular culture. And it’s the distance from that heyday and tabloid style coverage that makes this documentary feel like the real deal. Hindsight and perspective add more than enough weight to make this seem like an important record of an important man and an important moment in history.