“We just wanted to play good music, I never really wanted to become a Rock Star” – Kurt Cobain
For everyone who hasn’t heard, Kurt Cobain is the front man of the famous Nirvana band that rose to a global phenomenon by the end of 1980s. Kurt himself was regarded as a Rock icon during the highest point in his career. ‘Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck’ is a documentary film directed by Brett Morgen and released in April 2015 (IMDB, 2015) The documentary depicts the life of the late Rock star, Kurt Cobain from his childhood to death. The whole structure of the documentary revolves around the key interviews given by the people who were the closest to Kurt, including his mother, band mate, wife and so on. From the cassette tapes which Morgen later got access to (Gupta, 2015) had enormous amount of audio on Kurt speaking and also his own personal home recordings. Kurt’s audio (along with the journal entries) provided the blueprint for the whole documentary.
Animation is “a non-fiction film making narrative tool” (Gupta, 2015). This idea wasn’t new to Morgen who had earlier used this technique in one of his documentaries. I personally liked the idea of using animation over enacting a scene with real people. I believe this idea is powerful in a way where it only focuses on the ‘concept’ rather than the ‘story’. This documentary is more of a symbolic representation rather than a form of traditional story telling. Morgen does not directly intend to tell us the story of a great man who lived and died. He puts together a compilation of events which he believes to be true (the general concept of any documentary).
Animation is been be used in documentaries from as early as 1918 (Adams, 2009) in order to fill in the gaps of actuality. But today its rather a different scene when animation meets actuality. Animation today helps filmmakers to engage the terms of their subjects with the audience in a more flexible way to provide a “symbiotic relationship” (Adams, 2009). Now this is how I wish to look at Morgen’s work. There is a concept or ideology behind every archival footage Morgen choose to show. The animation further supports his case by exposing us as the audience to the hidden meanings. A symbol can only be drawn, and not acted out. Morgen looks at Kurt’s history as a symbolic representation of an artist’s life in general; not Kurt’s life in particular. This reminds me of Bruce Wayne saying “Anybody can become Batman”.
Over its release, Montage of Heck received mostly positive reviews from the Nirvana fans and yet some people who claimed to have known Kurt personally have a different opinion. Buzz Osborne, who knew Kurt right from their high school days claims the whole documentary to be nonsense. Well every documentary goes through this. This is not first time.
According to Buzz, “I tried to fuck the fat-retard” never really happened, though we could hear it in Kurt’s own voice. And most importantly, Kurt faked his stomach problem in order to stay loaded with Heroin. I personally have no interest to both these claims. Its what we chose to believe. Montage of Heck is Morgen’s version of reality. Its what he chose to believe. At least he did not make up anything. As a documentarian myself, I think I can live with that.
“You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” Do I even need to cite this quote? Who hasn’t heard it?
I never knew about Kurt or even Nirvana until I saw this film. But now, the above quote is what I understand about Kurt. Every interviewee in this film has been with Kurt in different stages of his life and none claimed to have not seen a problem with Kurt. Kurt’s life never changed after fame or marriage. His life changed as early as his parent’s divorce. In the very beginning of the film, Kurt had to bounce from place to place as his own family broke apart. He wanted to be loved, which Morgen is convinced he didn’t receive.
When Kurt ‘fell in love’ and had a relationship with Tracey Marander, his ex-girlfriend. Morgen emphasises the fact that Tracey supported Kurt when Kurt chose not to work. Tracey felt Kurt left her, because Kurt started to advance in his own life. Krist Novoselic, the base player of Nirvana and Kurt’s friend, later states that Kurt ‘fell in love’ with Courtney as she was the right “package” for his friend. This includes in Courtney doing drugs and being a junkie similar to what Kurt himself was. Hence in both the instances, Morgan never talked about true love. I assume, Kurt just found comfort in both the women. According to Krist, Kurt wanted “make a home” with Courtney as he wanted to out live his own memories of not having a proper home as a child.
In every point in his life, Kurt wanted to achieve what he lost at childhood. Kurt couldn’t accept the way his life was meant to be. Firstly, he couldn’t accept his parents’ divorce. Even when he rose to fame, he couldn’t accept the consequences of being a celebrity. He refused to give interviews and also “didn’t want to become a Rockstar”, despite the fact he was already one. He wasn’t the most adaptable person. That was his biggest problem. “When I saw Kurt in the tape, I cried”, says Wendy Cobain, Kurt’s mother, “It was because of the fear. Kurt was not ready for that”.
“I can humiliate myself, but not Kurt”, says Krist. Kurt could never tolerate humiliation and ridicule. Morgen clearly states Kurt loved his daughter more than anything. During Frances first birthday, Kurt walks away from his daughter as Courtney unwraps the presents. Courtney finds him doing drugs in the terrace. Kurt couldn’t help being a junkie. He could never fit into a family life though he aspired for it. All he wanted was to “make 3 million and become a junkie”. As a father, Kurt found himself a humiliation to his beloved daughter. To add to his depression, when he found out that Courtney “thought” about cheating on him, he tried to kill himself.
“My girl, don’t lie to me… Tell me where did you sleep last night…” These were the lines from Kurt’s last ever concert in Rome after which he would die in a month’s time. In this film, the band was not really the story. It was all about what Kurt lost and tried to achieve in his life. With what Morgen chose to show, the message is clearly conveyed. People who were against about the truth in the film said it was 90% nonsense (Talkhouse, 2015). But I would still agree to the remaining 10% of the truth. No one could deny the fact that the Cobain family broke and Kurt killed himself in the end. This makes up the remaining 10%. No one can change the beginning and the end. What happens in between these two points is totally with respect to what any individual would choose to believe. In this context, I choose to agree with Morgen’s version of the reality.
References Harbola Gupta, S. (May 4, 2015). From Audio to Animation: How ‘Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck’ Captures Cobain in All His Contradictions. Indiewire. Retrieved fromhttp://www.indiewire.com/article/from-audio-to-animation-how-kurt-cobain-montage-of-heck-captures-cobain-in-all-his-contradictions-20150504
Osborne, B. (June 6, 2015). Buzz Osborne (the Melvins) Talks the HBO Documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck. TheTalkHouse. Retrieved fromhttp://thetalkhouse.com/music/talks/buzz-osborne-the-melvins-talks/
Heck, C., Morgen, B., Morgen, B., Burckhard, A., Channing, C., & Cobain, D. (2015). Cobain: Montage of Heck (2015). IMDb. Retrieved 16 July 2015, from http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4229236/?ref_=nv_sr_1
International Documentary Association,. (2015). When Docs Get Graphic: Animation Meets Actuality. Retrieved 16 July 2015, from http://www.documentary.org/feature/when-docs-get-graphic-animation-meets-actuality