It’s been 21 years since Kurt Cobain’s suicide, but the fascination with the legendary lead singer, guitarist and songwriter of Nirvana is stronger than ever. The man and his music continue to enthrall not just people who experienced the groundbreaking music in the early 1990s, but a new generation of fans all over the world.
Although Cobain’s story has been told in books and films, filmmaker Brett Morgen spent the past eight years making the first authorized feature documentary, “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck,” which bows on HBO May 4 after a recent theatrical run in Los Angeles, New York and Seattle. It initially premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and was released in more than 70 countries last month.
Morgen, the Oscar-nominated filmmaker who helmed “Crossfire Hurricane” and “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” uncovered a treasure trove of home movies from Cobain’s childhood in Aberdeen, Wash., as well as videos shot during his marriage to musician Courtney Love that include riveting footage of the couple with their baby, Frances Bean Cobain, now 22, who acted as executive producer on the film.
It’s not your typical biopic or “Behind the Music” style rock-doc. A large chunk of Cobain’s young life is dramatized in animation. His own words from tapes he recorded, passages from the copious journals that he kept and his own artwork is used to paint a searing and memorable portrait of the iconic musician.
With the family fully on board with the project, Cobain’s mother, Wendy, his father, Don, and sister Kim provide moving commentary, and there is revealing first-person testimony from Love, Cobain’s previous girlfriend Tracy Marander and Nirvana bandmate Krist Novoselic.
“I was head over heels in love with that child,” his mom says over images of a bright, happy, energetic young boy shown playing a toy guitar and a keyboard in the family home, demonstrating his early musical proclivities. She goes on to relate the damage done by her divorce from Cobain’s father when Kurt was nine years old.
His troubled teenage years, during which he lived with various relatives and was shuttled back and forth between both parents’ homes, are remembered by his sister. “He was searching for whatever made him feel like he wasn’t alone and that he wasn’t so different,” she says about Cobain’s quest to find an outlet for his artistic talents.
Morgen also discovered a wealth of new material that documents the emotional roller coaster of Cobain’s personal life and reveals the range of his creativity, which includes disturbing drawings, some inspired by nightmares he had.
The inspiration for the film’s title is a 1988 sound collage that Cobain recorded on a four-track cassette recorder — a free-form mashup of bits from songs, manipulated radio recordings, elements of demos and sounds that he created or recorded. The tape was labeled “Montage of Heck.”
Naturally, there is performance footage that will thrill Nirvana fans, from the group’s early gigs in Seattle as a garage band — before Cobain, Novoselic and Dave Grohl took the world by storm in 1991 with the sound that came to define the grunge era — to playing before massive, fervent stadium crowds and then, the iconic “MTV Unplugged” performance that was one of Nirvana’s last.
Just three years after he forever changed the face of rock music, Cobain was dead at the age of 27.
The film explores the seeds of his discontent, which grew with his fame, his debilitating stomach ailment and his self-destructive tendencies, leading to an addiction to heroin of which he was tormented and ashamed.
Morgen spoke about the making of the film after a recent screening in Los Angeles. He was interviewed by Larry Karaszewski, co-writer of “The People vs. Larry Flynt,” which starred Courtney Love.
Morgen said Love called him in 2007 about the project. “Four years after I met Courtney, I was given the keys to a storage facility that had Kurt’s paintings on the walls and 18 boxes, including one that contained 108 cassettes with 200 hours of recordings. The script unfolded from there. There were 4,000 pages of journals. We even shot the blank pages. There were five hours of movie footage, which to me showed the 1960s world Wendy and Don bought into and brought Kurt into,” he said. “The early family footage was beyond a revelation. I’m watching and saw how worshiped and how beautiful Kurt was. Then the sister comes in and the focus shifted. All this footage ends when he was 8 years old. There’s not much else until he’s 22.”
That gap is what inspired him to hire animators Stefan Nadelman and Hisko Hulsing to cover those years. Included in the segment is Cobain’s own description of losing his virginity. “The tone was very distant but an amazing revelation because he was performing,” he said.
Morgan said he went into the project totally cold, as a casual fan of Nirvana. “You’ve got to understand Kurt’s art. There’s a real artist who created a visual and aural biography with a lot of spoken word, painting and sculpting. That let us tell the story from the inside out, capturing the interior, whereas most documentaries are from the outside in.”
Regarding Cobain and Love, Morgen said the documentary showed their lightning-rod relationship on many levels including Cobain’s romanticism and his wit but also the couple’s obsession with the media and how they were portrayed. In an age just before the Internet firmly took hold, their union was frequent tabloid fodder and coverage of them included an infamous Vanity Fair magazine article in which Love admitted she used heroin during her pregnancy.
“He loved her. It’s his view of her. It’s pretty raw. But Frances said to keep it real and that’s a tribute to that family,” said Morgen, who as writer, director and producer was given final cut.
A frequent question that Morgen has faced was indeed asked straight away by an audience member — why Dave Grohl, who went on to huge success with the Foo Fighters, is not interviewed on camera during the 2-hour, 15-minute documentary. “Everything was said by the five people, his mother, his father, sister, girlfriend and bandmate. The public desire about Dave, something I’m asked during every Q&A and is a distraction, speaks to Kurt’s feelings about the culture. This film is about the man, not the band.”
Throughout the entire experience, Morgen said his goal was to strip away the myth to reveal the man. “I find him endearing and well-rounded. Kurt was a raw artist, but there was a gentle, warm Kurt I was happy to find.”
(“Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” premieres on HBO May 4 at 9 p.m. ET/PT with additional air dates on May 7, 10, 11, 15, and 30.)