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Last night I attended the highly-anticipated Tribeca Film Festival screening of Montage ofHeck, the new film about Nirvana frontman and 90s cultural icon Kurt Cobain. The event was the first documentary screening where I felt I could've used earplugs, which either shows how loud the thing was, or how old I am now, or probably both. That said, if there has ever been a documentary that deserves to be screened at eardrum-rupturing decibels, it's Montage of Heck, with its footage from live Nirvana shows, album recordings, home demos, and score composed by Jeff Danna. Following the screening, there was a conversation between Cobain's widow Courtney Love and director Brett Morgen, moderated by Rolling Stone contributing editor Neil Strauss (AKA the guy who wrote the pickup-artist bible The Game).
The film itself was uproarious, seamlessly edited, and very intimate, navigating between interviews with Cobain's parents, tour footage, and home movies featuring bathroom and bedroom scenes as well as clips of the couple with their child, Frances Bean. The documentary also draws from Cobain's personal notebooks, which Love gave him unrestricted access to, and drawings and paintings he created throughout his life, which were then animated for the film. Through these animations we learn other names he was considering for the band including "The Reaganites," "Elvis Cooper," "Erectum," "Smell Fish," "Man Bug," Novacain," and "Breed" before settling on Nirvana.
For a film about the formation of a grunge god, Montage of Heck doesn't linger on Cobain's early musical heroes. In a quick scene featuring one of his notebooks we see a list of albums Cobain admired including eponymous ones by the Stooges and the Raincoats, but the film focuses more on his cultural foundations. Cobain had a hatred of Reaganism, homophobia, sexism, consumerism, ableism, and racism, and while those values undoubtedly helped shape his art, he was also deeply influenced by psychological and emotional issues, such as being shuttled between homes as a young teen and feeling unwanted at times by both of his parents and his grandparents.
We also learn about the bands Cobain and his bandmates didn't care so much for. Peppered throughout the film are numerous digs at artists like Aerosmith and Jerry Garcia, both of whom receive memorable jabs: "Let's send him a tape," one of them suggests. "Sprinkle it with patchouli," is the response. Later, we see the young family in the bath, the Nirvana singer performing a sneering Bob Dylan impression for his bemused audience. The word Mobile is about all that's intelligible.
It's interesting to note that some of the remarkably intimate scenes were not, as Love disclosed during the Q&A, typically shot by a tripod as one might have assumed, but by Eric Erlandson, Love's guitarist in Hole and former boyfriend. Even more surprisingly, this fact doesn't seem to have fazed Cobain, despite the pointed jealousy he possessed, according to Love (another insight: Cobain's overdose on sleeping pills the month before his death was, Love says in the documentary, caused by feelings of extreme betrayal at her "thinking about" cheating on him).
During one less unhappy moment in the documentary, Love stands in the bathroom, adjusting her towel. Cobain is seen from the back, naked from the waist up as he shaves in the mirror. We are shown an extended view of his sinewy, pimpled back before he suddenly turns to face Love, exclaiming, boyishly: "Look, mustache!" Love laughs and tries to get him to keep it—"No way," he responds. Moments later she strips off her towel to display her "big tits" to the camera; a little later in the scene, she does it again. After the film Love told the audience that Erlandson was the cinematographer that day.
Those disarming moments are plentiful in Montage of Heck, and do a fantastic job of letting the audience in on Cobain and Love's relationship. Onstage, when Strauss asked her to quantify how much she thought Morgen got right in the film, Love answered, "This is as close to the truth as it's going to get."
Their relationship was a favorite talking point of the media at the time, and was often painted as turbulent or compared to those of Sid and Nancy or John and Yoko (or both simultaneously, as was the case of Lynn Hirschberg's famously unflattering profile of Love in Vanity Fair). Yet Sunday night Love summed up their love as "that punchdrunk thing" where "you're just talking, and fighting, and fucking." Of Cobain, he was "this beautiful man I was married to 21 years ago."
When asked by Strauss about what parts of the story the film didn't show, Love became visibly uncomfortable. "Let's take another question," she said.
Toward the end, Morgen talked about how making the film felt "very personal."
"I found myself amazed at how much I related to him," Morgen said. "It felt like a film about Kurt, but also about our whole generation"—an interesting connection to be made about a musician who vehemently resisted such pressures his entire career.
When asked why it took so long to make the movie—eight years of various legal and interpersonal wrangling—Love answered, smiling a little, "There was a tsunami of shit in the middle. And I caused most of it."
An audience member asked the panelists about Cobain's stomach ailments, a recurring theme throughout the film. Even in the early days of touring, pre-heavy drug use, he describes the pain as excruciating, including one diary entry in which he says it makes him want to "kill himself."
"He had serious, serious stomach problems," Love said. "He had Crohn's disease, he had multiple endoscopies," she continued, rattling off the list before arriving at the fitting, maybe inevitable note: "He had Cobain's disease."
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