Kurt Cobain’s music is just as he describes in Cobain: Montage of Heck – high tempo, high octane rock and roll. In his short life as lead singer of Nirvana he wrote short, visceral songs that never overstayed their welcome. But Cobain: Montage of Heck, the documentary authorised and contributed to by his family hasn’t been inspired by this brevity.
The film doesn’t concentrate on the parts of Cobain’s life that will appeal to fans. Instead it is a cradle-to-grave biography that clocks in at over two hours. Kurt Cobain, lead singer, guitarist, and songwriter of Nirvana, remains an icon 20 years after his death, but the film spends far too long on scenes that add too little to an understanding of his story. There is long home video footage of Cobain playing with his daughter as a baby. Far too much time devoted to his baby birthday parties. Early Super 8 of his parents is also unnecessarily in the mix. There is a sense that much of the footage has been used just because it exists. No documentary – especially one about a suicidal heart-throb rock-star – needs so many images of the subject’s childhood and the early life of his parents.
Cobain’s diaries and recordings provide much of the content. As these do not have moving images, rotoscope animation is used, his words spoken over the top. This brings to life episodes from his life, and is cut with archive footage and interviews with family members. Much is made of his notes and diaries. They are successfully included, again through animation. As quotations are spoken lines of text are animated as though being written, drawing attention to certain words and giving much more visual interest than a sheet of text.
Within the lengthy film there is detail and backstage video. Unlike Nick Broomfield’s 1998 documentary Kurt & Courtney, which was not allowed to use Nirvana’s music, Kurt’s voice and lyrics resound through the film. The involvement of the family is clear in other ways. There are long, often unnecessary interviews with people including his step-mother, who admits to kicking him out of the house. This early family rejection is blamed for Cobain’s unhappiness, along with an ongoing stomach complaint. These are portrayed as the reasons that he turned to drugs..
But the lengthy film doesn’t cover the most contentious part of Cobain’s story. It ends with the bald fact of his death – just when some analysis or detail is needed. Should a documentary about a well known suicide not discuss that episode? It is more relevant than his 3rd birthday or his daughter’s hair being cut.
If you want information about Cobain’s death then you will have to return to Broomfield’s earlier documentary. Here in Cobain: Montage of Heck there is no mention of the conspiracy theories concerning his death, no mention of the accusations against Courney Love that have been levelled by people including her own father.
Dave Grohl isn’t interviewed but crops up in archive footage. Interestingly, no one who is interviewed shows much emotion, except for Krist Novoselic, bassist in the band with Grohl and Cobain.
A tighter film would have been more successful. The impression is that the family insisted on everyone getting screen time. Cobain: Montage of Heck is over-long and full of extraneous detail, but is a rounded portrait of one of rock’s self-destructive characters.