Cobain: Montage of Heck (film)

Cobain: Montage of Heck (Directed by Brett Morgan)/2015

Wow, Kurt Cobain was an incredibly tortured individual. He had two suicide attempts before a final successful one; he suffered chronic stomach pains leading to a decade-long heroin addiction; and, he had a deep sense of alienation and anger towards just about everything.

Watching this documentary made me marvel at how such angry, depressing and anti-establishment music could have been the most popular and iconic of the early 1990s.  Nirvana’s second studio album Nevermind sold 30 million copies.  It is hard to imagine such frustrated and despairing music topping today's charts; yes, maybe getting some mid-range success, but not being the defining music of our age. 

The documentary itself is very well put together. I particularly enjoyed the animated scenes that were voiced over by Cobain’s diary entries or interviews. These scenes are blended with interviews of his family, and real footage of Nirvana playing and being interviewed, or Cobain and Courtney enjoying(?) heroin binges together.

It explores Cobain’s mind through his art and by interviewing those close to him, including his mother, father, sister and Courtney Love. The premise of the movie is that Cobain was a kind and creative child who suffered through the divorce of his parents.  He turned into a hyperactive teenager and moved between his mother’s, father’s and grandparents’ places as each abandoned him when they could no longer manage him. Slowly a gifted and caring child turned into an extremely angry, rebellious, depressed individual that sought refuge through music and art.

Of interest to me was all the different interpretations of the events that happened in Cobain’s life.  We are told by Cobain’s mum that when he was 5 he was put on Ritalin for ADHD. After this, there is no more mention of treatments for mental health or even Cobain having a mental health problem.  All that is spoken of is a pain of abandonment and the self-medicating that followed.  First Cobain self-medicated with pot, but eventually only heroin could dull the pain he felt.  The people interviewed seem to have accepted that Cobain would suffer due to his childhood experiences and sensitive disposition; the dialogue that developed was one of a sensitive child being unable to handle common childhood experiences rather than a person with longtime mental health problems failing to get proper treatment (which would be another interpretation, but not necessarily THE interpretation).

One issue I found with this documentary is that even when the young Cobain is talked about and footage of him is shown, Nirvana’s music plays over the top. This gives the impression that what ultimately eventuated was determined, and all past events are seen through the lens of the final outcome.  Similarly when family and friends are interviewed all previous events take on the light of the eventual tragedies that occurred, when in reality, Cobain’s life could have gone in an infinite number of directions.

The movie concludes with Cobain’s suicide. The suggestion in the movie is that Cobain could not handle having his child taken from him. For him, that was the ultimate shame and failure. Being a neglected child, all Cobain wanted was to have a family and failing at this meant he failed as a human. To my mind, this is an example of how people create narratives for events in other people’s lives that fit in with what they think, or would like to think are true. And while this documentary is filled with interviews of people close to Cobain, it should not be taken as anymore than a subjective account of what went right or wrong in his life.

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