The new documentary ‘Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck’ lacks focus, but rare video and audio clips make it must-see. Rating: 3 stars out of 4.
Brett Morgen’s oddly titled “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” is named after one of Cobain’s arty sound projects — more of an experiment than a song, really, that included snippets from 50 different sources.
Morgen’s film is a similarly jampacked affair, edited from thousands of photographs, home movies and audio clips. The rarity of those source materials alone makes this film a must-see for any hard-core Nirvana fan.
The film begins with childhood movies of the late Nirvana singer’s first birthday party in Aberdeen, then moves to footage from early Nirvana shows. Current interviews are included with Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic; Cobain’s widow, Courtney Love; and his mother and father. His parents debate their blame and how Kurt was harmed by what he called “their legendary divorce.”
Movie Review ★★★
‘Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck,’ a documentary directed by Brett Morgen. 132 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences. SIFF Cinema Egyptian.
These on-screen interviews are less effective than segments where noirish animations dramatize stories Cobain himself narrates in audio. One powerful sequence illustrates his first sexual experience while a symphonic rendition of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” plays. It’s brilliant, and it is the dramatic highlight of the film.
Morgen’s other documentaries (“Crossfire Hurricane,” “The Kid Stays in the Picture”) were notable for skillful storytelling, and there are parts of “Montage” that display his deft touch. The Nirvana version of “Teen Spirit,” for example, is saved until the film ends, providing a perfect coda.
But other aspects of “Montage” are less satisfying, and will limit the film’s appeal. When it shifts from Cobain’s childhood to Nirvana’s fame, the film loses its focus to a degree. The many MTV or similar video program clips that follow tell us more about Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl (who doesn’t appear in a contemporary interview) than they do about Cobain’s internal life.
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The clips of the band goofing around feel familiar, though, because they fit so squarely into the “Behind the Music” band-documentary archetype, as opposed to, say, the unique slow-build storytelling of the Oscar-winning film “Searching for Sugar Man.”
Morgen makes use of thousands of edits that put many powerful images on screen, but they begin to overwhelm the viewer. Some of these images are of Cobain’s artwork or found art he used in his own video experiments, but none of this would be clear to a casual fan. One single narrator — Novoselic would have been the ideal candidate — might have been able to tie these visuals together.
Morgen does end the film artfully by ignoring Cobain’s final drug-addled month and by letting the famous “Unplugged” performance suffice as a close. Cobain’s suicide is handled by on-screen type alone, and the eerie silence is memorable.
When “Teen Spirit” blares at the end, anyone who loved that song — which in the Northwest means nearly everyone — will be standing and cheering.