by Jacob Sullivan
From the December 2015 IssueMontage of Heck could have easily been a hagiography, furthering the idealizing and canonizing of Kurt Cobain. Arguably, no musician has been more romanticized in the past thirty years than the Nirvana frontman. Cobain, through the media and other films about his life, has been elevated to a near-mythic status, and this film could have comfortably indulged in his mythos, especially with this being the first movie regarding Cobain to be officially authorized by his estate. But director Brett Morgen avoids hagiography, and instead presents the most personal, emotional and intense documentary to ever explore Cobain’s life and work.
The film chronicles Cobain from before he was even born to his eventual suicide at the age of 27. With the authority of the estate, Morgen was given the freedom to spend eight years sifting through Kurt Cobain’s unreleased journals, drawings, home videos, recordings and sound collages. The vast amount of material crammed into the documentary is astounding, with most of the film playing out (as the title suggests) in montages full of Cobain’s art and music.
Cobain’s broad artistic output leads to the bio’s greatest strength: It allows Cobain to speak for himself. Cobain’s personal writing and artwork holds more weight as a source than anything his family could say. As Cobain, himself, says in an old interview: “It’s all in the music, man.” Morgen doesn’t try to paint his vision of Cobain through the info he displays. Instead, the film works much like an art exhibit. The art is presented to the audience and they can take from it what they see. Every question isn’t directly answered, but the willingness to trust the audience is admirable and refreshing.
Allowing for an open interpretation of Cobain’s work causes the film to avoid the mythmaking and the canonizing commonly found in music documentaries. Such films are usually tributes by fans, for fans, but Montage of Heck could have been made about any artist, good or bad, famous or not, as it shows no special treatment to who Kurt was in the public eye. The biopic strips away fame and public opinion, instead focusing solely on the man and his work. The look into Cobain’s psyche is intimate to the point of becoming uncomfortable. While Cobain’s suicide may only be covered in one sentence, his depression and insecurity is delved into with great detail. Cobain’s many mental issues and complexities are shown through his work and interviews with close friends and family, with much of the film giving context for the factors that led to his death.The doc benefits not only from the interesting source and his copious amounts of material, but also Brett Morgan’s direction, which makes the film much more than a series of interviews and narrations, using varying methods to tell Cobain’s story. Multiple mediums are used to analyze Kurt including animation, interviews and concert footage. The use of animation is especially notable, allowing the filmmakers to visualize long audio recordings that otherwise might have been a chore to sit through. This is particularly well done in Kurt’s retelling of his traumatic first sexual experience with animation bringing the sparse recording to disturbing life, allowing the audience to not only hear the lonely, lost Kurt, but also see him.
Similar energy is injected with the use of montage. Most of the film plays out as a music video, using Kurt’s journals, concert footage and photos as the visual aspect, and early demos, Nirvana recordings and reinterpretations of Nirvana classics as the audio. The reinterpretations change the inflection of the all-too-familiar songs. For example, one reinterpretation has a children’s choir sing “Smells like Teen Spirit,” which accentuates the sadness and dread of the song.
The film’s sole weakness is its run time. The two hours can become exhausting with the constant fast paced momentum of the montages. Eventually, the sequences begin to retread previously covered ground from earlier in the film. The redundancy becomes apparent by the end of the first hour as Courtney Love enters the film and Nirvana becomes the most popular band in the world. This redundancy is also attributed to the fact that Kurt’s life, once he became famous, has been covered intensively by other films and news outlets.
Despite this weakness, Montage of Heck is a tour-de-force—the most impactful, personal, and original music documentary/biopic of the last decade. Much like how Nirvana reinvented the tropes and form of rock music, Montage of Heck reinvents the music documentary. It delves past the fame and mythos and into Cobain’s psyche in a manner that is hard to watch and depressing, but wholly engaging. The power of the film was so immense, that I had to pause and take a breath before continuing, an accolade no other film has accomplished. It’s a film that any musician, artist, Nirvana fan or music fan should see. Watching it is to understand an individual and the whole artistic process.
4.5 out of 5 stars