Delving into a dead man’s archive to make a film is an uncomfortable prospect. When director Brett Morgen was given the “keys to the vault” and the go-ahead to make the first ever authorised Kurt Cobain documentary, Cobain: Montage of Heck, he had to wrestle with whether it’s morally correct to publish work that an artist did not choose to share; whether the use of private footage - that the film shows in abundance - of that artist at home, living, breathing and naked can or should be put on general release.
During a few points in the film, I became more uncomfortable than curious. I wondered whether I, along with the rest of the audience, had taken fandom to an extreme; whether we’d all become perverse voyeurs. As Kurt struggles to engage with his wife and daughter while giving the latter her first haircut, almost certainly on drugs, the question hangs awkwardly in the air: Would he want us to see this? Should we condone making the very private public when the person in question has no way to protest?
These issues of privacy and voyeurism have been raised in reviews. Slant Magazine described the film as: “flirt[ing] with offensive moments of voyeuristic access that...uncritically fosters the sort of peep-show mentality”. Similarly, Bustle called some scenes, “downright eerie and almost invasive”.
Internet commenters have elaborated on these concerns. “Is no one allowed any privacy, or is that privilege receded when you die? Wasn’t that level of intrusion part of his profound discontent? Or is it all just fodder for fans and cod-critics as some kind of self therapy?” says one below the Guardian interview with Morgen. “I’m a huge Nirvana fan since age 13, but this seems wrong to me. Nirvana’s music is the one thing I’m positive Kurt would have wanted to share. This stuff is fulfilling someone elses wishes,” says another on The Dissolve article.
The debate will probably linger around this film when it’s viewed by the general public on April 10th and no doubt similar concerns will be raised when what looks to be a similarly harrowing posthumous Amy Winehouse documentary is released. But while these arguments are valid and unquestionably important, they’re at odds with what the documentary is trying to achieve. What Montage of Heck fundamentally is: A female perspective on Kurt. And one provided by the women closest to him.
Before the film was shown at Sundance in January, director Brett Morgen dedicated it to Kurt's mother, Wendy O'Connor; his sister, Kim Cobain; and to his daughter, Frances Bean. Three women we’ve barely heard from regarding their loss, even though they’ve been forced to grieve publicly for 21 years. They wanted the world to finally see the real Kurt; to dismantle the myth created after his death from a collage of two decades of documentaries, interviews and opinions - largely from a male perspective.
From Charles Cross’ detailed but flawed biography Heavier Than Heaven and Michael Azerrad’s collection of interviews with Cobain, Come As You Are, to Gus van Sant’s ridiculous fictionalised film Last Days, which speculated on Cobain’s final movements, and Nick Broomfield’s 1998 documentary Kurt & Courtney (a film that claimed Courtney Love was responsible for Kurt’s death causing her to receive death threats for years): this is always Kurt through the male gaze. Along with these views, our collective cultural understanding of him comes via hundreds of magazine features, written by a certain kind of middle-aged white music journalist invested in keeping the myth of Kurt as pained prophet alive, and the other male members of his band.
Cobain: Montage of Heck is different. It was Courtney Love who began this stripping away of myth. Back in 2007, she approached Morgen asking him to make a documentary and gave him full access. From here, artist Frances Bean, Kurt and Courtney’s 22-year-old daughter, got involved as executive producer. Her vision was key from the start. As Morgan told the Guardian of his first meeting with Frances: “Before I could get two words out of my mouth, Frances started telling me how the film should be, and it was the exact movie that I was about to pitch to her.” She then persuaded many people to contribute, including Kurt’s mother, father, and sister - none of whom had been interviewed on camera before. The pair enabled this project to be what it was.
The only male to interject context or narrative is Krist Novoselic of Nirvana, to provide a band angle - covering interesting, necessary but unsurprising ground for the narrative. The rare and insightful interviews that play a key part in the narrative are provided by the women of Kurt's life. When we meet Don Cobain (Kurt’s father with whom he had a difficult relationship) and his wife Jenny (Kurt’s step-mother), Don says little. More is said in what he doesn’t say, in the watery-eyed silence, his hand grasping onto the armchair.
It’s this female and emotional input that provides deep, sensitive insight into his character we’ve never had before. The documentary starts with Kurt’s childhood. Instead of just focusing on him as a child, we get a montage of his parents’ story. We see the early days of her relationship with Don to its eventual breakdown, which had a well-publicised effect on Kurt.
It’s during this childhood that he came to feel different. He hated to be embarrassed and deep down, just wanted to belong. Instead of Don, it’s Jenny who reveals more of Kurt and his life. “He wanted to be the most loved,” she says. The women in his early life continue to add more to this complex emotional portrait of Kurt. His sister Kim says: “He wanted normalcy and a family. But then didn’t because he fought against it.” Tracy Marander, Kurt’s first long term girlfriend shows herself as something between a first love and a maternal, nurturing figure. Tracy’s been interviewed on camera before, but with a very specific agenda and male lens, in Broomfield’s documentary. She shares far more here. Love notes, intimate details and insightful information on him as creative artist, which run alongside his unreleased audio recordings and artwork.
The biggest Kurt reveal through this female lens? His relationship with Courtney is a real one. During the last 21 years, their marriage has been dismissed or brushed over as lustful, firey and short-lived. As a Nirvana fan and a Courtney Love obsessive and apologist, I spent my teens poring over every interview trying to piece together a real image of their relationship. I was never able to learn enough of it. In her photo book Dirty Blonde, there’s a photo of Kurt and a diary entry about him that reads: “I know we'd still be together despite my doubts. That sort of compatibility comes once in a blue moon.” Those words were the most real thing I found.
In this rare home video footage, not only is the true nature of their chemistry together revealed, but Love’s filled a gaping hole in understanding Kurt and the final years of his life. This is a vital piece for every Kurt fanatic's cut-and-paste image of him. It’s evident their dynamic is not something that could be explained with interviews or others weighing in to pass judgement, but something that had to be seen.
In the film, a curly-bobbed Courtney is at a Nirvana sound check. She asks if the band like her hair curly. Someone says no, that it makes her face look too round. With that, in one of the film’s surprising moments of humour, she shrieks and stalks off in half-faux huff. We cut back to Kurt who is watching after her, quietly smiling. He’s in a half dream, clearly fascinated by her.
We watch their intimate moments living, kissing, breathing, chatting, washing, naked and most of all just enjoying each other’s company. In one long clip, the pair are in the bathroom in towels. Kurt shaves, she’s apparently bleaching her moustache. They’re creative, quirky, hilarious and quick characters. They riff off each other brilliantly. It’s the real, quirky 90s rom-com you’ve never seen, the private dynamic in a romantic relationship that only the two people involved can truly know.
This perspective has absolved her of much of the Courtney hatred. Importantly, she had no involvement in the documentary further than handing Morgen the archive and answering questions for the interview. In fact, she saw the documentary only a few days before Sundance, when it was too late to make changes anyway.
She, like Kurt, has written extensively, even from a young age, about her desire to be accepted. In each other it appears they found someone to fill in all the spaces, to mirror each other’s anxieties and insecurities. When the film cuts to Courtney, present day, saying “We were all we had”, this time, you really believe her.
With Frances’s birth, the intimate team of two is extended to three. For me, her involvement as executive producer goes some way to smooth over any uncomfortable guilt. If anyone has a right to share the more intimate scenes of Kurt, it’s her. The bottom line is: What should a film about Kurt Cobain, the guy who hated phonies and bullshit, be if not entirely honest?
This documentary, if nothing else, has shifted focus away from our male-centric idea of Kurt. Morgen told NME for this week’s cover feature: "I got this sense that Kurt was at his happiest either alone or with his companion, be it Tracy or Courtney, but with women in particular." This is just one of the many reasons it’s important that the women closest to him be able to share the Kurt they knew. Not just for them to contribute their truth to the world’s idea of him, but because they were able to see a different side to him.
As Morgen suggested to Noisey, you’d have to subscribe to a level of megalomania and arrogance to think you could know Kurt Cobain. But thanks to the access Courtney provided to “the vault” and Frances’ unflinching artistic nature, Morgen was able to make a montage of film, audio, animation that surpasses anything similar previously done. Some might argue that this film has just replaced the myth of an icon with another myth - that of Kurt as an enamoured youth, loving husband and family man. But that’s not the case. It’s stripped back an icon’s layers and provided a closer, more tender portrait of the real him.
Cobain: Montage of Heck is out on April 10.
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