Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck

A haunting, heartbreaking cinematic poem about a lost icon, and perhaps the finest music documentary you'll see.
Sarah Ward
Published on May 08, 2015


Maybe you're old enough that you can remember where you were when you heard the news of his death 21 years ago. Maybe you grew up only ever knowing of his loss and his legend. Either way, Nirvana fan or not, Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck is essential viewing.

This isn't your usual music documentary, or the standard package of talking heads, childhood photos and backstage pics — though they're all there in some shape and form. As the name suggests, this is a mosaic of his tumultuous life as it happened, drawn from the most intimate resources and largely spoken in his voice.

Filmmaker Brett Morgen uses art, music, journals, home videos and audio montages provided by Cobain's family to journey, step by step, from the birth to the death of the rock icon. First he's a bright child, then a disaffected teen, a creative genius, a reluctant star, a drug-addicted celebrity and a doting father. What he rarely seems, though, is happy.

Indeed, think of Montage of Heck less like a portrait of Cobain and more like his thoughts and emotions being allowed to roam free. Biographical information is included, but this is about who he really was, rather than interesting trivia. Things get dark, clearly; however, the fleshed-out image the film composes of the troubled musician is probably the most complex audiences have ever seen. Examinations of tortured artists rarely come across as quite so honest, or so genuine in peeking behind the veil of their public personas, or so willing to embrace the complications of their subjects.

Morgen's style has much to do with the movie's air of authenticity, the writer, director and co-editor piecing everything together with a lived-in mood and a stitched-together look unlike the bulk of similar offerings. From animation that brings Cobain's drawings to life and scrawls his handwritten lyrics, lists and love letters onto the screen, to footage of his brand of wedded bliss with Courtney Love, to revealing chats with those who knew him best (Love, Cobain's parents and sister, his ex-girlfriend Tracey Marander and Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic), it never feels anything less than hand- and home-made.

The wealth of content the feature has at its disposal is certainly astonishing, both in providing much more than a glimpse Cobain's most personal moments, and in allowing fans a few opportunities to really geek-out — such as spying his sketches for Nevermind's album cover and his suggestions for 'Smells Like Teen Spirit''s music video. That Montage of Heck is the first effort made with the support of his loved ones shows, though this is as far from a glossy tribute as you can get.

It might be light on performances, but the film also has an amazing soundtrack, obviously — and the way Morgen weaves Nirvana's music into the mix is so well done, it causes goosebumps. That's the kind of reaction Montage of Heck inspires. By the time it makes it to the MTV Unplugged clips from what turned out to be one of the band's last major performances, expect your eyes to get misty.

With so much said about Cobain for the past two decades, it feels fitting that a compilation of his own words actually says the most. Never basking in the cult of his fame, nor wallowing in his demise, this is Cobain being Cobain. It's not just a montage: it's a haunting, heartbreaking cinematic poem about a lost icon — and perhaps the finest music documentary of its generation.


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