Cobain: Montage of Heck is the latest documentary from Brett Morgan. It follows the life of Kurt Cobain, leader of the band Nirvana from early childhood till the last month before his untimely suicide at the age of 27. This is one of many documentaries to come out recently around Kurt Cobain, but the only one to have the approval of the Cobain estate.
The music (material). Morgan is blessed with an extensive wealth of material; he has doodles and art, notes and lyrics, and home movies that all evolve from Cobain’s adolescence to adulthood. Thankfully he doesn’t just decide to take a backseat to the material. Morgan presents a lot of his own material, such as applying motivation to Cobain’s childhood doodles and the monologue-driven animation sequences (reminiscent of his earlier film Chicago 10). Morgan also adds a kineticism to Cobain’s doodles by animating them. These little additions to the documentary formula add up and actually end up benefiting the overall film by providing energy where it may be lacking. If you want never-before-seen material, this is the film to find it.
The image (making). I find the parameters on which to grade documentaries difficult. The difficulty stems from whether or not criticizing the film for its subject or execution is more important. I find that the simplest way is to accept that the importance should lie in how the film balances both of these elements. In this case Cobain: Montage of Heck profits that very balance of concept and execution. Particularly, the control exhibited by Morgan in terms of editing. He juggles the schizophrenic pace and emotions in a way that is both empathetic of Curt and yet not too jarring for the audience. By using reality as your base material it can be difficult to control the emotion in a scene. Especially if the scene seems to be focusing on an unextraordinary scene of reality. Morgan does a phenomenal job of subverting this regularity. I appreciate the attention to the narrative rather than fact. That is good film-making, whether it is accurately representative or not.
The man (a few minor issues). There are a few problems with the film. Firstly, the film is too long. Despite the fact that the pacing is on point for most of the film and never seems to drag, there are times where it will linger on somewhat dispensable information. There are segments within the film that are essentially montage clips of television. I assume these segments are supposed to establish an atmosphere and allude to Cobain’s upbringing. However they are so nuanced that the running time they consume is not worth it. Another problem I have with the film is the failure to establish the underground Seattle music scene. This is a little contradictory to my first issue with the film being its length, but I feel that there is no Cobain without Seattle (and vice versa). Even if it was touched upon slightly, I’d appreciate it.
An interesting and skilfully made documentary. A must watch for fans of Cobain.