Come as you are: Montage of Heck explores the destructive genius of Kurt Cobain
Montage of Heck can't resolve its contradictions. It doesn't want to. Here lies Kurt Cobain, the most ambitious, reluctant junkie rockstar of his generation, pushed in a wheelchair onto the Reading Festival stage, collapsed in front of 60,000. He's mocking melodramatic, gossip-baiting rockstar bullshit, but it's as nakedly theatrical as anything Axl Rose ever did. It's easy to forget: Kurt wanted this. For a while, he had it. Then “Territorial Pissings” storms in over the opening credits, a montage of post-war American cultural detritus, and for a minute, everything is right in the world. But then the drums and guitars fade out, the pained screams of the vocal track are laid bare, and you're unnerved again.
Kurt himself named Montage of Heck, originally a sound collage cassette he made in 1988, and the film, too, wrestles with the inherent futility of trying to find meaning from chaos. You could listen to Bleach, Nevermind and In Utero in 10 minutes less than it takes to watch this documentary, and maybe gain more insight into the man. If you haven't already, start there instead. But Montage of Heck is a showcase for every kind of art Kurt made – drawings, recordings, diary entries – all adding up to a sprawling, lifelong autobiography. Kurt was self-mythologising long before he was famous, and much of it was barely factual. But that's the point. Brett Morgen directs with the same spirit, always choosing emotional truths over the literal.
The Super 8 home movies of any 1960s child, so far removed from now, would be inherently fascinating. When they're of a cherubic Kurt Cobain, they're otherworldly. Set to a glockenspiel version of “All Apologies”, they're eerie – and a little disingenuous. Not every playful family interaction is some tragic omen for what came after. But with his parents' divorce and the onset of adolescence, Kurt's precocious childhood drawings take a turn for the morbid. It's only once you see those titular montages of heck – his scribbles brought to vicious life over “Scentless Apprentice”, or “School” paired with classroom-trashing, parent-terrorising footage from 1979's Over the Edge – “NO RECESS!!!” – that you realise Morgen's uniquely qualified for the job. He's really just making alternative music videos with Kurt's own depraved sense of humour. If the fetal revenge fantasies or visions of crack babies don't make you laugh, they'll at least dispel any notions that Nirvana were just tortured rockstars.
Genius is born and learned. No one arrives fully formed. There's always some generational, existential divide between the artist and their working-class parents, and creativity only accelerates the gap. We're all the sum of our influences, but genius can't be taught, either. It's elusive, even to their closest friends and lovers. Montage of Heck has one thing you're never supposed to hear: the formative, messy practice sessions of a truly great artist. As Kurt writes, “a band needs to practice at least 5 times a week” – even in punk rock! The young Nirvana had an uncynical purity of intention, even through all their anarchic noise. Greatness came with learning to refine it. When you finally hear “Lithium” played for the first time, paired with that iconic Nevermind album cover shoot, it's like the sky's opened up. Every artist is a potential unemployed failure, until suddenly, they're not. Every past trauma becomes a stepping stone. Only then does it all make sense.
The last third of Montage of Heck hits hard. Fame is a whirlwind, and its joys are real, but you see Kurt retreat into himself with every subsequent interview. It's absurd how quickly he was anointed some “spokesman for a disaffected generation”, in a media culture where “alternative” was barely a concept. Courtney, the tabloid circus, and heroin arrived soon after. Is it voyeuristic, seeing a gacked Kurt nod off while holding his baby? Sure. But it's true. Watching it implicates you with the same helpless, irrational guilt every Nirvana fan must have felt in April 1994. Montage of Heck only holds back, thankfully, when it comes to his suicide. There is no conclusion, no happily ever after. Whether you dwell on the tragedy, or choose to heal and embrace the film's collective bloodletting seems to be up to you.
Kurt Cobain's life has become myth – in Steven Hyden's words, “a fixed narrative that plays on a never-ending loop”. Montage of Heck can't break the cycle, but it gifts a well-worn story some much-needed humour and ambiguity. When “Smells Like Teen Spirit” finally plays over the end credits, the film's just ticking one last box. It's as familiar and groundbreaking as ever, but slightly more meaningful, burdened by the knowledge of the life that created it. You want to mosh and laugh and cry all at once.
So why make this documentary now? What does Nirvana mean in 2015, that they didn't already in 2005, 1995? Brett Morgen doesn't offer an answer. So here's one.
In December 2013, NPR published Ann Powers' year-end piece “Lorde Sounds Like Teen Spirit”. Predictably, it pissed off the usual suspects. But provocative headline or not, the point stands. Born two years after Kurt's suicide, the now 18-year-old Ella Yelich-O'Connor is a child of a six decade-long tradition: the bohemian, counterculture scene that spawned everything from beat poetry to punk rock. And yet, she remains the most visible ambassador of an internet full of self-made weirdos and popstars. Her generational shift is only just beginning. In April 2014, Lorde sang “All Apologies” with Nirvana's surviving members at their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction. The alternative doesn't sell out. It bends the establishment back towards its own will.
Nostalgia sees it differently, but the true dominant commercial sound of the early 90s was adult contemporary soft-rock and R&B. Mariah, Boyz II Men, Bryan Adams, Michael Bolton – hardly the music of the youth. So Nevermind's immediate impact was obvious. Labels signed alternative acts of wildly varying quality, because they couldn't tell the difference between them. None of them would ever be the next Nirvana; counterculture wasn't in their blood. Once Pearl Jam and Alanis Morissette gave way to post-grunge and nu-metal, Nirvana's direct influence seemed to have run its course. A generation of 2000s indie rock bands took more cues from Pavement. Or maybe they learned the wrong lesson from Nirvana's success. Happy to stay underground, they stared inward instead of raging upward.
Some paradigm shifts are so big their psychic effects can't be measured until a generation later. The idea that you can be pop and counterculture, anthemic and subversive, and famous for more than fame's sake, is just a given. This generation was born never knowing otherwise, and they're only now coming of age. Lorde, Kanye, Lana Del Rey, Sky Ferreira; today's truest rockstars couldn't give a fuck about guitars, authenticity, or some outdated 20th century definition of punk. Nirvana isn't a sound. It's a state of being.