'Montage of Heck' documentary shows how Kurt Cobain turned his fear of ridicule into art
"It ends with Kurt saying 'I got out of class, and kids were there to make fun of me, and I couldn't handle the ridicule, so I went to the train tracks to kill myself.'"
The new documentary "Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck" uses the Nirvana frontman's own photos, recordings and more to weave together his life story.
Director Brett Morgen spent eight years working on the film, combing through Cobain's archives.
"This was the most intimate encounter that I've ever had with someone I've never met. I mean, I started to feel like I knew Kurt more than I knew anyone outside my family."
Where the film's name came from
Morgen was given access to a storage facility where Cobain's family keeps his belongings. He found a box with 108 cassette tapes, including one called "Montage of Heck."
"It was so raw and primal, and yet captured all these different flavors of Kurt," Morgen says. "You know, Simon and Garfunkel's 'Sound of Silence' smashed into Black Flag, into Romanian polka music, and it's so out there, and analog, too, that it became kind of our guide for making our film. It was the one thing I would give to all the department heads to try to get into Kurt's headspace."
Kurt's media fixation
Both Cobain and his partner, singer Courtney Love, claimed at the time not to care about fame, but the film shows that they cared deeply about their portrayal in the media.
"In public he would act as if he didn't want any of it, but what I found in private, he couldn't stop, it was almost an obsession, reading everything."
Several scenes show Kurt and Courtney being funny with each other, showing Kurt being witty in a way people don't usually think of him being.
"So they seem like two drugged-up 25-year-olds who are madly and passionately in love with each other. But that's on the surface. Underneath the surface is this idea that they can't get away from the media, that they're constantly referring to the way that they're being written about and perceived."
Morgen says that what triggered everything that ultimately led to Cobain's death was a brutal article about the couple in Vanity Fair, which included the revelation that Courtney Love was doing heroin while pregnant with their daughter.
"Kurt lost it. What's interesting is they had no reason to be doing that piece. They weren't promoting anything. And so they invite [the writer] into their world, and look what happens — they lose their child."
As a result of the article, child protective services took away their daughter.
"I went to the train tracks to kill myself"
Nirvana bandmate Krist Novoselic told Morgen that Kurt didn't talk about his problems, but expressed them through what he created.
"You don't drink beer in Aberdeen and say 'I'm really threatened by ridicule,' but he would express this through his art, and through his journals, and through other mediums. And so as a filmmaker, to have access to someone who can express themselves in this sort of 360-degree immersive way, it was an assignment of a dream."
Morgen went through Cobain's journals and started to see patterns emerge.
"One of the great discoveries was a tape that Kurt had recorded in 1988, and it was a tape in which Kurt tells the story of his first sexual encounter, which didn't end very well. And in this story, it ends with Kurt saying 'I got out of class, and kids were there to make fun of me, and I couldn't handle the ridicule, so I went to the train tracks to kill myself.'"
Morgen says that he took some artistic license with how he depicts Cobain's attempt to kill himself, but says the way it presents Kurt's experience is real.
"Act like a man"
The film shows Cobain's childhood movies, recording his life from the age of six months. Cobain's mom Wendy says in the film that as Kurt started to become a hyperactive toddler, his dad would shame and ridicule him.
"Kurt was just being a boy and bouncing off the walls, or whatever boys do, [and] his father would say, 'Act like a man,' and embarrass him. And [Wendy] puts the blame on Don. But there's something else at play," Morgen says. "Wendy takes pretty much every opportunity she has to shame Don in the movie. She talks about his underwear, and how he had no sense of style, and I think it's kind of revealing and illuminating in terms of where this all originated from."
The film shows Cobain trying to live up to the hopes and expectations that he created for himself, and to the expectations of others.
"I think a lot of Kurt's life, like a lot of our lives, is subconsciously driven by the need to sort of reclaim or repurpose or come to grips with what happened in those first few years. And so he was so idealized — the camera drifts away from Kurt when he's 3 years old, and when I watched those home movies unfiltered from 6 months to 8 years, my mouth dropped, because I realized that this idea that Kurt had a happy childhood until he was 8 years old, until his parents divorced, wasn't visible in the footage. What I saw, in all due respect, was Kurt being the focus of everything for the first few years, and then increasingly being taken out of the pictures, and him trying to get back in the picture, him jumping in the frame and the camera turning off."
Courtney Love and Frances Bean
Morgen says that the movie gives what he calls "the least vain depiction of a female icon that we've ever seen." When someone accused him of the film being Courtney-centric, he says he took great offense. Despite the movie being pitched to Morgen by Love, he says she left everything in his hands and never asked to be involved in the process.
"There was no involvement and no creative control whatsoever in the film, and that is the miracle of this movie — is that somehow I got all parties — the mother, the wife, the bandmates, everybody — to sign off and allow me to have final cut. And I got it with the studio and I got it with [HBO]."
Morgen says he thinks the way Love gets portrayed in the media is unfair.
"She gets so maligned publicly in the press, in the media, and from where I'm standing, here's this woman who gave me the keys to this storage facility and said, 'Go do what you're going to do.' And she did it because she was a big fan of my work."
Love told Morgen that she loved his documentary "The Kid Stays in the Picture," which told the story of film producer Robert Evans. Morgen says she told him that she watched the movie every day for months.
"And that's why she chose me, because she loved how I worked with still photographs, and she thought that I could bring the art to life."
Morgen says that, other than Courtney, Kurt and Courtney's daughter Frances Bean, everyone else involved with the film wanted changes. Despite the other big personalities involved, including Courtney Love and Dave Grohl, Morgen says his film isn't about that. Morgen says he was open to taking notes from Frances Bean, but after seeing the initial cut of the movie, she didn't want him to change anything.
"When I met with Frances, she said, 'Listen, whatever you do, make it real. Keep it honest. That's the best tribute we can do to my father.'"
Frances told Morgen that her father is always presented as an icon — "Saint Kurt."
"And she trusted me to go into this facility and come back with an honest, unflinching account of who Kurt Cobain was. And when she saw the film for the first time, she looked at me and she gave me this big embrace, and she said, 'Thank you for giving me a couple hours with my father that I never thought I'd have.'"
Love also connected with the movie, Morgen says. She saw a digital screener, then saw it at Sundance, but when they were at the Berlin Film Festival and Morgen said she didn't have to sit through it again, Love said she wanted to.
Morgen says that Love told him, "It's as close as I've got to Kurt since he died, and I want to be with my husband tonight."
"I realized that this woman hasn't had a chance to grieve," Morgen says. "And then you get these heinous accusations that have been leveled against her... So in that moment, whatever you want to say about this person, I saw a widow. I didn't see Courtney Love the icon, I saw a widow who wanted to go spend time with the man that she hadn't seen in 20 years."
Listening to Nirvana has become a different experience for Morgen thanks to making the film.
"It totally changed it, because it was given context. Even within the film, there's a little play I do, where at the title sequence I play 'Territorial Pissings,' and then I repurpose it later in the film. And the idea was that the viewer, when they're watching the film the first time, they're kind of hopefully rocking out when they hear 'Territorial' the first time in the film. When we come back to it the second time, and you'd gone through this journey with Kurt, you get it a little more. You get the performance, and the energy, and the passion, and the angst."
Morgen says that Nirvana was Cobain's greatest creative output, with his early performances being a form of performance art.
"The way he's throwing his body around the stage is, you know, you now know where that is coming from, where that pain, and where that passion, and where that commitment to his craft is coming from."
Morgen says he liked Nirvana, but wouldn't even call himself a casual fan when he started working on the film.
"We locked picture in January and I can't stop listening to them. Now, I don't have to listen to them, but I can't stop listening to them," Morgen says. "And when I hear things like, 'well they only did three albums' — well, they did three amazing — four, actually, with 'Unplugged' — amazing albums. And you can say what you want, but we're sitting here talking about it, and that means that they have connected and resonated with us and with people all over the world."
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