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17 Apr 2015 00:00
Life of a legend: Screen grabs from the documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, show Cobain as young guitarist and with his child Frances Bean.
The inspiration behind the name of the song that blew Nirvana into rock hyperspace in the early Nineties is awkwardly quotidian. Kurt Cobain was dating riot grrrl Tobi Vail, when her Bikini Kill band mate, Kathleen Hanna, scribbled jokingly on the wall of his apartment that he smelled like Vail’s favourite deodorant, Teen Spirit.
The anxiously proud frontman of one of rock’s most iconic bands was purportedly embarrassed to learn later that he had mistaken it for anarchic aphorism.
The passage of Smells Like Teen Spirit from tender inside joke to anthem for a frustrated generation represents how Cobain’s private vulnerability was exactly his public appeal. Nothing could be more painfully apparent than this in Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, the hefty new documentary on the subject of the gravel-voiced legend of grunge, which both exemplifies and illuminates the way in which the intimate details of Cobain’s life have become communal property.
When his widow Courtney Love approached filmmaker Brett Morgen eight years ago with the idea for the project, she opened to him a trove of archival materials, including home video footage, journals, doodles, photographs and cassette tape recordings from the artist’s life, meaning that this is by far the most detailed and authentic look at the genesis of the private thoughts of a figure who is perhaps equal parts myth and man.
While this is by no means the first biographical treatment of the charismatic musician (this substantial film was not only authorised but instigated by the family), it is undoubtedly the most definitive. Whether or not the family’s involvement makes the film more or less susceptible to romanticism is an open question.
Certainly, the mass of material has been handled in an innovative and appropriate way.
Morgen made the right decision to make sense of this vast collection chronologically, such that it stands as a tragic Bildungsroman for a promising boy who never comes of age.
A nightmarish patchwork of scraps of a self-destructive life, the film begins heavily weighted by the dramatic irony, given the agonising knowledge of what is to come: the adorably blue-eyed child with a guitar wiggles clumsily in his parents’ home, proclaiming confidently: “I’m Kurt Cobain!” Candid, exposed interviews with his immediate family reveal the effect that his parents’ divorce and subsequent fragmentation of his family life had on his childhood.
The title of the film is taken from an experimental recording made by a teenage Cobain, and the film sets out to faithfully continue the jagged aesthetics of Cobain’s private ramblings. Where home footage becomes sparse around his teen years, presumably as a combined result of teenage camera shyness and domestic fallout, Morgen resorts to gritty animated imagined visual renderings of the world immediately surrounding the artist’s tape recorder.
Haunting re-compositions of iconic songs such as Heart-Shaped Box and Scentless Apprentice lend a disturbing dreaminess to the sometimes terrifying psychic immersion. By the time the footage catches up with the height of Nirvana’s fame, the hordes of fans at their enormous stage shows seem positively terrifying in relation to his humble beginnings, and one begins to empathise with Cobain’s disillusionment.
The film is a little draining at just over two hours, but any less thorough a treatment of this anticipated and conclusive film would have been at the expense of dignifying its subject (its reason for being), and so should be tolerated by those who undertake to watch it.
Perhaps one of the most substantial thematic threads running throughout the film is maternity, which might have been put down to the involvement in the project of numerous mother figures in his life were it not such a persistent theme in the work of the artist himself. (Nirvana’s third and last album was entitled In Utero.)
Interviews with one of Cobain’s early girlfriends, Tracy Marander, reveal that she happily undertook to look after him like one would a child, feeding and caring for him.
There is a measure of the uncanny in the similarity between the appearance of Cobain’s mother and the middle-aged Love, the mother of his child.
Footage reveals his personal distress at the misogynistic criticism suffered by Love at a time when the role of women in both music and the family was (and is) in a state of flux. The film uncovers the extent to which there can be little doubt that Cobain was preoccupied with illusory perfection of the nuclear family. His political beliefs, which were openly feminist, are more than evident in such gender subversive songs as Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle.
It would be difficult to argue that Montage of Heck contributes anything radically new from a biographical point of view.
If anything, it reinforces the extent to which, although Cobain had an extraordinary capacity for inward sensitivity and its outward counterpart, honesty, his suburban life pre-MTV was nothing if not incredibly average.
But, as the second wave feminists who shared many of his thematic interests – madness, abortion, motherhood, sex, abuse, domesticity and disillusionment with traditional gender roles – came to understand in the late Sixties, Cobain’s life demonstrates that what might be unexceptional at a domestic level is so because it is steeped in the ideology. The personal, no matter how private, is always also political.
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