“Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” is one long cry of anguish.
“It’s all in the music, man,” Cobain says a in clip culled from the mass of biographical material filmmaker Brett Morgen used to assemble this revealing documentary about the man behind Nirvana.
Grainy home movies, jittery concert footage, clips of interviews (though not conducted by the filmmaker, who never met Cobain), excerpts from his journals and animated sequences created for the movie, all are incorporated by Morgen to paint a picture of a terribly tormented soul.
It’s indeed all there in the music: Cobain’s rage, his disaffection, his sorrow and his yearning, pouring forth from the soundtrack with shattering intensity at ear-bleed volume.
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After brief theatrical runs in a handful of cities — Seattle among them — “Montage of Heck” will be shown on HBO on Monday, and a viewer would be well-advised to clap on a set of high-end headphones and crank up the volume on one’s home entertainment system to get the full effect of it.
The soundtrack is awash with Nirvana’s music, quite a lot of it taken from concert footage, much of it visually smudgy and smeary, shot in small venues and also in vast stadiums, with Cobain howling, writhing, hurling himself into Dave Grohl’s drum kit and stage-diving into crowds of ecstatic fans. A sense of chaos is ever present in such scenes.
This is an immensely sad movie. Cobain is first introduced in baby pictures, home movies showing a smiling, blond, energetic toddler growing up in Aberdeen, his eyes alight with joy and mischief. And then, before too long, that light goes out, replaced by a disquieting, empty stare.
The divorce of his parents, mom Wendy and dad Don, when he was 9, seems to have been a trauma from which he never recovered. From interviews with both parents and also with Don’s second wife, Jenny, we learn how he bounced from one household to another, being kicked out by one parent or the other, going to live with grandparents and others, and eventually with a girlfriend.
“He was in so much pain he took it out on his mom and his dad,” his stepmother Jenny tells Morgen.
Rootless, disaffected, hyperactive (Ritalin was prescribed for him at a young age), at times suicidal, he was also musical. He learned to play the guitar, he discovered punk rock, and he found a purpose in life.
This was a guy whose emotions were very close to the surface, and when he joined with bassist Krist Novoselic (interviewed by Morgen) and then Grohl (also interviewed, but the footage of him was not used), to form Nivana, he found the medium into which he could pour his innermost feelings. Fame came suddenly and unexpectedly. His mother Wendy, on hearing the master tape for “Nevermind” for the first time, foresaw in its raw expressiveness that her son had caught and conveyed with acute intensity universal teen angst. She recalls telling Cobain, “You’re not ready for this.” Prophetic words.
“I never wanted the fame,” Cobain says. “I didn’t want to be a rock star. It was freaking me out.”
Heroin entered the picture. Courtney Love entered the picture. They were maybe the world’s most famous junkie couple. Love, interviewed by Morgen, admits she used heroin while pregnant with the couple’s daughter, Frances Bean.
It’s in home movie footage with his baby that the light is seen to have returned to Cobain’s eyes. He says he didn’t want to be an emotionally distant father, like his own dad was to him, and he appears to be genuinely joyful holding his infant daughter.
It wasn’t enough.
His was an early death foretold. “Nothing’s gonna save me,” is a notebook entry seen on screen. “Kill yourself” is repeated in his notebook. And on April 5, 1994, he did, at age 27.
His feelings of despair, angst and loneliness overwhelmed him, and it’s the unsparing way in which “Montage of Heck” captures those feelings that make it an emotionally overwhelming movie experience.