As a lifelong Nirvana fan, I approach every scrap of retrospective on the band’s late singer with a grain of scepticism. Much like fallen heroes like Ian Curtis, Jimi Hendrix, and John Lennon before him, the deification and mythologization of Kurt Cobain has grown to occasionally gross heights, and while Brett Morgen’s much labored over Montage of Heck doesn’t curb the grandiosity, it manages to balance it well with the humanity of its subject in what very well might be the finest Cobain retrospective made yet.
At the film’s screening at SXSW, Morgen made a note in the Q&A to not consider Heck to be some definitive account on the man’s life or Nirvana. This point should definitely be stressed — While it’s certainly inclusive and the most intimate account of Cobain ever released (aside the ghastly decision to release his Journals ten years ago), the film doesn’t follow a direct narrative, but does stay loosely chronological. Artistic-wise, it hits multiple home runs. There are many montages that pull freshly scrubbed raw footage from Nirvana music videos, live performances, and interviews that are so vivid and alive, it makes it look as if Nirvana was a thing that existed last week. There are also several well-sculpted animated sequences, many pulled from Cobain’s own home drawings and the aforementioned journal scribbles, which feel much more appropriate represented in context, rather than just being dumped onto paperback wholesale.
The degree of intimacy actually reaches levels of deepness that are at times heartbreakingly charming, and at others, nearly disturbing. Cobain and his widow Courtney Love took a lot of home movies, and you see a lot of them in Heck. Love, who for years has taken a pretty bad rap over the years as an influence on Cobain’s descent, gives an interview that doesn’t gloss over her ruggedness, while showing a side to the story that we often overlook in favor of hating. While Love is no angel (she straightforwardly admits in her interview to taking heroin during her pregnancy and to nearly cheating on Cobain in early 1994), the genuine bond between the two of them is finally seen fully in their home movies, which equally hilarious and sad, as the audience can watch the doom unfold before them. The other most striking sequence is when you hear an account of Cobain losing his virginity to a mentally handicapped girl in his teens, something he confessed in a never before heard cassette found in his first girlfriend’s home archives. That along with tons of demos that score the film, offer a look into his life that no one aside from himself has ever heard or see, and it’s a weird and unsettling place to be.
One of the big “controversies” of this film is that there is no Dave Grohl interview, something that Morgen got a bit vindictive defending when someone at the screening asked him about it. The fact is though, there are no interviews with Chad Channing, Butch Vig, Jack Endino, Kathleen Hanna, Steve Albini, Pat Smear, or Michael Stipe either. The interview choices are condensed for the sake of giving the film a concise approach which works to that degree, although one of the film’s biggest problems is it’s lack of restraint. The animated sequences, the live footage, and the peering into his journal entries are well done, but there are just too many that go on for too long. Having done such great work on everything, it’s understandable not wanting to cut anything, but it hurts the film’s rewatchability a little.
The life of Kurt Cobain has been something that everyone has been trying to get closer to since his death. Up until this point, it’s been dressed up and dramatized to a degree that only has seemed to push him further away. In Montage of Heck, Cobain finally becomes human again, and it’s been a long time coming. The art level is way high, but so is the content, and no one who walked out of that theater could have said that they felt the same going in.