I’ve seen a lot of documentaries about Nirvana, I can’t even remember what most of them were called. Ever since Kurt Cobain Montage of Heck came out I’ve been meaning to watch it and finally got around to doing so. Here are my thoughts on the documentary about the Nirvana front-man and 90’s icon:
TW: Suicide will be mentioned in this post if this triggers you this is your warning to click off now.
Kurt Cobain is notoriously portrayed as a tortured soul; this sensitive, despondent heroin addict who beneath his rock-star exterior was just…sad. Sure, it goes without saying that Kurt Cobain was a troubled individual but he was more than the sad scruffy-looking blonde on MTV Unplugged, or the ’90s version of Sid & Nancy with Courtney Love by his side.
Nirvana documentaries tend to focus a lot on the rise to fame, have something to say about the explosion of Teen Spirit, show some live clips, portray Kurt as all of the above and then insinuate that the downfall was mainly to do with Courtney (but there’s a debate for another time).
People like to portray Kurt as larger than life, or as miserable, it’s nice to see that rockstars are just regular people at the end of the day.
That said, I’ve always been a bit iffy about his journals being shared. I don’t recall him ever expressing in his life he wanted them to go public, unlike Anne Frank who made it explicitly clear in her diaries that she intended on publishing them if she survived, which her dad then honoured. Kurt Cobain and Anne Frank have nothing in common, but as far as published diaries go, theirs are the most popular. When it comes to Kurt, it does feel a little like an invasion of privacy. I don’t keep a diary any more, but if I did, I wouldn’t want the world reading it!
The fact that we’ve all seen his suicide note isn’t right either. Firstly, because it was only for Courtney and Frances, even though Courtney actually read it out at a show… More importantly, showing that kind of content increases the likely hood of copy cat suicides.
The real Kurt Cobain
What I liked about this was that it was so much more personal. I believe this is the first documentary that his family cooperated in the production of. That said, Frances Bean Cobain actually isn’t too happy with the second half of the documentary. She admitted to not being fully present enough to contribute to how she wanted to. You can read about that here.
There are interviews with his parents, ex-girlfriend, sister, band members, Courtney etc. There are also passages from his own journals, artwork, phone recordings, and private video footage – from his youth to home films with Frances and Courtney. Kurt’s personality actually shines though for once – and yes, Kurt Cobain did have a sense of humour, he did smile and laugh and joke. It was endearing to see the side of him that doesn’t show in interviews on stage. We saw the real Kurt Cobain. I found the animation of his drawings to be a nice touch, as well as the cartoon illustrations of parts of his youth which brought his journal entries to life.
Of course, legendary moments of Nirvana’s career such as playing Reading or Unplugged featured. We also got a brief history of the band, but bits and pieces were omitted. Dave literally appeared out of nowhere with no explanation as to how/when he joined the band, to give an example. We also saw private covers of Beatles songs and footage from the teenage garage band days. The magnitude of Nirvana’s fame was clearly portrayed and the pressures that came along with being the voice of a generation of disillusioned youth.
I enjoyed that the background music was instrumental versions of classics like Lithium or the choir cover of Smells Like Teen Spirit.
What I didn’t like
My only complaint about the documentary was the ending, which was quite abrupt. To literally end with a blank screen stating that Kurt committed suicide one month after his attempt in Rome in 1994 was a huge letdown. Obviously I knew it was going to end with his death, but I would have liked to have seen the aftermath.
There’s footage fans reactions, news coverage that could have been used or even a statement from a family member would have sufficed. Perhaps I’m coming off as insensitive here, but his death was tragic and impacted a lot of people. I feel like it was sort of skimmed over.
I’ve argued all along that Kurt Cobain wasn’t just “that grunge guy from the ’90s who committed suicide” by saying that Montage of Heck shows another side to him, so maybe it ended like that to illustrate that Kurt was more than his suicide. Who knows, either way, I still found it to be a bit of an anti-climax to what was a really captivating documentary. It was too abrupt.
I think the response to his death would have captured just how much him and Nirvana meant to people. Niall Breslin recalls in his book “Me & my Mate Jeffrey” that people were crying in school when they heard the news. Nirvana was the band of that generation.
The Bottom Line
Overall: I still loved it despite the ending. Every Nirvana fan needs to see this. I wish I’d been around to see Nirvana at the time. However, after learning about what Frances thinks of it, did dampen the experience a little bit. I first watched it thinking her and Courtney were happy with it.
Out of all the documentaries about Nirvana I’ve seen, this is the most memorable, and my favourite.
If you’ve already seen Kurt Cobain Montage of Heck, what did you think?