If you want an intimate and moving portrait of Kurt Cobain and have not seen About A Son then you’ve fucked up, because it’s probably the most insightful documentary ever made about him—and it doesn’t even use his image, let alone drag it arse backwards through archives of private home footage.
Released in 2006 and directed by A.J. Schnack, Kurt Cobain: About A Son is based on more than 25 hours of never-before-heard audiotaped interviews conducted by journalist Michael Azerrad for his 1993 book Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana. The documentary is told entirely in Kurt Cobain’s own voice—without celebrity soundbites, news clips, or sensational angles—and set over animation and film footage of three cities in Washington State that played a major role in his life: Aberdeen (where he was born), Olympia (where he spent his late teens) and Seattle (where he died). It’s set to an original score by fellow Washington-born musicians Steve Fisk and Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard, as well as tracks from Big Black, The Vaselines, Butthole Surfers and other artists who influenced or touched Cobain during his life.
About A Son didn’t fit into anybody’s expectations of a Kurt Cobain documentary, and it didn’t follow the narrative of a traditional “rockumentary” either. In fact, it’s so atypical in its approach that the filmmakers refrained from calling it a documentary at all, preferring instead to call it a “nonfiction film.” Rather than piecing together evidence from people around him and unreleased material, About A Son gives you a chance to sit with Kurt Cobain’s voice and listen to him tell his own story.
To return to Azerrad for a moment, it’s worth turning our attention to his book Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground, 1981–1991: a seminal overview of the musical landscape Nirvana were a part of, chronicling the careers of several underground rock bands from the 80s and 90s—like Minutemen, Fugazi, and Beat Happening—who found little or no mainstream success themselves but were hugely influential in establishing American alternative and indie rock. In the New York Times Book Review, critic Eric Weisbard wrote, "Azerrad is adept at drawing out musicians' war stories—and this bare-bones movement was full of them.” I mention this because, out of all the bands from that period, Nirvana and Kurt Cobain’s war story (though not a topic of focus in the book) is probably the most known and least understood. Azerrad is one of the few people trusted to tell it properly. “I enjoy talking to you,” Cobain says in the first four minutes of the film, “But I don’t think I’m going to be any more open with my personal life in any other interview in the future, because people don’t fucking deserve to know, really.”
In order to understand why About A Son is so different, you have to observe the shitshow that is the landscape of Kurt Cobain documentaries as a whole. There’s 1998’s Kurt & Courtney—conspiracy theory pornography investigating the circumstances around Cobain’s death and allegations of Courtney’s involvement in it; the yet to be released docudrama Soaked In Bleach which for some reason is adamant in continuing what Kurt & Courtney started; Kurt Cobain: The Last 48 Hours of which is self-explanatory and about as concrete as Gus Van Sant’s Last Days (“a fictionalized account of the last days of a musician, loosely based on Kurt Cobain”). That brings us to the present day, and the infinite headline generator Cobain: Montage of Heck, which is the only officially sanctioned work of the bunch, but still comes from a place of such hindsight that its inclusion of private home footage (which Courtney Love granted director Brett Morgen access to) feels uncomfortably voyeuristic and ultimately empty—because it lacks the permission or direct weight of its very subject. About A Son side-steps all that because it stems from intimate interviews conducted for the purpose of a biography. Rather than treating Kurt Cobain retrospectively as a question to be answered, it simply presents him as he was.
“We didn’t want to call it a documentary,” Azerrad said in an interview with MTV, “We’d call it a nonfiction film, because it wasn’t really going to trace a journalistic narrative. It became more of an intimate visit with a person who a lot of people thought they understood but probably didn’t. You’re listening to him talk in these very intimate conversations, and you get a feeling that I don’t think anyone has ever gotten from Kurt.”
Azerrad interviewed Kurt Cobain for a Rolling Stone cover story in April 1992, but the pair bonded over the fact that they were both small kids who didn’t relate to the jocks in high school, and struck up a friendship. In late '92, Azerrad floated the idea of writing a book about Nirvana. Cobain was excited about it and would invite Azerrad to his home in Seattle to do interviews, which would go on to become the basis for Come as You Are and About A Son. “He was extremely nice,” Azerrad told MTV of the experience, “He told me to come in and sit down. And then he offered me some grapes.”
The interviews were recorded between December 1992 and March 1993 and most of them took place between midnight and dawn. Throughout the film, you can occasionally hear his daughter Frances Bean crying in the background or Courtney Love interjecting to ask a question.
“It was basically a man, in his kitchen, talking to someone he trusts in the wee hours of the morning,” Azerrad recalls. “The TV was always on. He was a huge ’Speed Racer’ fan. He loved Chim Chim the monkey. He’d be sitting in his kitchen wearing ripped jeans and a pajama top.”
From describing his “happy childhood” and the naive ambition that came with being completely unaware of your own socio-political environment, to musings on technology overtaking fantasy (“I’ve always felt like my generation was the last innocent generation”), to how flies would always be drawn to him in the mornings and bombard him in bed, About A Son doesn’t make you feel like you know Kurt Cobain any better—and it doesn’t attempt or pretend to be that kind of film, either. Instead, it forces you to question what you thought you knew already and makes you feel kinda stupid for ever thinking you could know more. It’s revealing, but not overtly or even intentionally so. One of the best moments is an opening anecdote in which Kurt describes how he used to like toying with the idea that he was an alien, adopted by his mother who found him after being dropped off by a spaceship (“It was really fun to pretend that there’s some special reason for me to be here and I feel really homesick all the time—so do the other aliens, and I’ll only have a chance to come across a handful of other aliens for the rest of my life, but eventually one day we’ll find out what we’re supposed to do”).
“You’re going to walk out of the theater and need a minute to collect yourself,” Azerrad told MTV before About A Son was released, “[Kurt]’s brutally honest in a way, and that only helps to tear down the 12 years of mythologizing and cartoonish overstatement and speculation of his life. It just leaves you feeling stripped.”
The last ten minutes of the feature are dedicated to questions like: whether Nirvana will make it into the next decade (“I would love to be able to just play with other people and create something new - I would rather do that than stay in Nirvana”), the future of rock music in general (“It’s already turned into nothing but a fashion statement and an identity for kids to use as a tool for them to fuck and have a social life”), death, drugs, divorce, and “Is yours a sad story?” (“No, not really. It’s nothing that’s amazing or anything new, that’s for sure”). The last thing you hear is the two saying goodbye, and the whole film is bookended by shots of a sunrise and a sunset—firmly bracketing everything within the twilight, where the conversations would have taken place, and leaving them there.
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To celebrate the release of our new documentary, Redemption of the Devil, about the life of Eagles of Death Metal's Jesse Hughes (which you can buy on iTunes here), we'll be running features all week that celebrate the past and present of top music docs.