Brett Morgen’s Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck is a beautiful, impressionistic, cinematic portraiture of one pop culture’s most enduring icons. With the blessing of Cobain’s estate and family, Morgen’s film presents Cobain entirely through his music, art, and home movies, presented alongside some of the most forthright and unguarded interviews about the front man of Nirvana perhaps ever recorded. Like Cobain’s music, Montage of Heck is chaotic and undiluted, the adolescent rage, angst, and despair that serve to define the grunge acts of the 1990s never quite as inchoate and desperate as they were in the hands of the late Buddha of aural sludge and lyric melodrama. Echoing the sentiments held by Diego Crespo in an earlier review for the site, Morgen’s Montage of Heck might just be the top early contender for best film of the year.
In Montage of Heck’s comprehensive and exhaustive journalistic bent, Morgen has presented us with a cinematic character that is perhaps the closest we’ll ever come to truly knowing Cobain. The level of research and the subtlety underlying each and every question posed to his esteemed pool of talking heads belies an understanding of Cobain that is well informed, lacking the obfuscation adherent to idolizing fan service. In point of fact, Morgen’s Cobain may be the most unappealing and unattractive look at the face of Nirvana that has ever appeared to the public eye. Montage of Heck is willing to engage Cobain for the man that he was outside of the recording studio, warts and heroin addiction and all. Watching the late Cobain struggle to be physiologically present and mentally cognizant during his infant daughter’s first haircut is truly unsettling, the man presented to us in the film’s archival footage from Courtney Love’s personal home video collection un-self-conscious to the point of outright exploitation, only to be reined in by Morgen’s restraint in articulating the scene presented to as nothing more than what it ostensibly is just a day in the life of Cobain.
But what about the sanctity of Cobain’s personal privacy over a decade after the fact? In life, Cobain was never entirely comfortable with being a figure of public scrutiny, so what gives someone the right to present Cobain as yet another iconographic character in yet another cinematic tragedy? Was Morgen attempting to understand Cobain on his subject’s own terms in the service of historicity, or as a form of artistic expression entirely divorced from the wishes that the man behind the music might have wished were he still alive and capable of speaking for himself?
Before Montage of Heck aired on HBO a few weeks ago, one of the questions being bandied about was whether or not everything there was to say about Nirvana had already been said, and if so, was Morgen’s film just another extraneous nostalgia fluff-piece. In answer to that question, you could objectively argue for the artistry and relevance present in Morgen’s reflectively somber moodiness, Montage of Heck presenting little in the way of narrative fact, while relying heavily on representing Cobain’s state of mind through the juxtaposition of sound, image, and voice in its titular montage of featured content. Where other examinations of the man that was Cobain have been objectively self-serving of those wishing to erect a monument to their chosen idol, Morgen seems less than content to merely mythologize the impact of Cobain as a musical act of the 1990s. In Montage of Heck, the grunge movement that Nirvana helped to propel into the mainstream was one of iconoclastic rebellion fundamentally irreverent towards the conceptual ideology behind blatant hero worship, making Morgen’s film rhetorically concerned with something far greater than precocious, nostalgic longing.
However, the question still remains of where the ethical line should be drawn in regards to exploiting an artist’s image in the event of their death. While Cobain is by now a figure of the popular imagination especially prone to caricature and individual appropriation, his personal history speaks to a personal hurt far too sensitive to broach without due and proper caution. Montage of Heck may be a forthright and honest appraisal of Cobain’s personal history, but the fact that it presents his character within the context of a Shakespearean tragedy rings vaguely opportunistic — a far cry from some of the more egregious defamations of Cobain’s image within popular culture, but no less ethically problematic. Morgen is a fully capable directory and biographer, and his efforts towards shining a light on Cobain as an individual are nobly achieved, but the nature of characterization necessary in constructing a documentary film still feels dishonest given the subject in this particular case.
It would be hard to definitively exhaust our shared cultural interest in Kurt Cobain as an individual and a performer, the lurid nature of his demise coupled with the far reaching accessibility of his music serving to cement his appeal far into the foreseeable future. Following that line of thought, it’s easy to find the appeal in a documentary such as Brett Morgen’s Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, and others of its sort. While it may be a long time before anyone attempts another biography of Cobain and Nirvana to such an extent, Morgen’s film will inevitably be succeeded by countless documentary features after it, even if they don’t all prove as intellectually nuanced and emotionally subtle as Morgen’s intensely aesthetic odyssey.
Nostalgia may inspire some filmmakers and storytellers to craft further biographies of Cobain that will serve only to appropriate his image more unambiguously, but Morgen’s Montage of Heck is thankfully not of the same camp. Even if its narrative content speaks to a certain moral dubiousness on behalf of representing an artist who perhaps means more to us than the sum of any individual dramatic parts, Morgen’s film’s saving grace comes in its unapologetic depiction of Cobain’s psychosis as being fundamental to the insolvable crisis that ended the late musician’s life far too soon, and summarily denies his film’s narrative the prosaic catharsis that it seemingly sets itself up for. It’s easy to construct a Shakespearean tragedy out of Cobain’s life and image, but an idealized conception of what will always remain a romanticized fiction is unilaterally dishonest. In contrast, Morgen’s film is appropriately lacking in any filmed coverage of his chosen subject’s untimely end, leaving his viewers with a glimpse of Cobain as he might have been, a tragic character, but certainly no hero.