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A Magnificent ‘Montage of Heck’

Courtesy of HBO Films
Courtesy of HBO Films

What can be said that hasn’t already been said about legendary Nirvana frontman, Kurt Cobain? That’s a question that still rolls around in people’s minds 21 years after his sudden death at age 27.

While many documentaries and books have been made on him after his death, it’s hard to picture one today that would stand out in exploring Kurt’s eccentric personality. Acclaimed documentary filmmaker, Brett Morgen manages to achieve that feat with “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck,” which not only provides an effectively deep insight into his life, but also uses film techniques to show aspects of him that even his rabid fanbase wasn’t already aware of.

Morgen’s first accomplishment comes with the fact that his film is the first documentary about Cobain to be made with the compromise of his family. The mutual agreement between the two parties allowed Morgen rare access to all of Cobain’s personal and family archives. This included unreleased home movies, journals, photography and drawings amongst many other things.

With all of these properties at his disposal, in addition to archived concert footage and interviews with the band, Morgen manages to weave all of them together in a seamless manner. Even though it’s a tad overwhelming to see Morgen include all of these things into the film, it’s still rewarding for the voyeurism gained into Cobain’s life as a whole.

Further comprehension of his unique personality develops through a series of interviews, which come only in the form of his family (mother, father, stepmother and sister), wife Courtney Love and Nirvana bassist/longtime friend Krist Novoselic. While the interviews are kept to a minimal, they contribute vitally in hashing out various contradictions that were perceived of Cobain at various points in his life.

The home movie footage depicting Cobain’s early childhood years in the film’s first third is poignant in its display of  his consistent happiness before his parents’ divorce. One of the montages from this period of his life is juxtaposed with an almost child-like rendition of “All Apologies,” which is heartwarming and simultaneously heartbreaking in knowing that his life would never stay the same after the divorce.

Aside from the aforementioned “All Apologies” cover, there are an abundance of other famous Nirvana songs used throughout in both diegetic and non-diegetic forms. One of the most powerful employments of non-diegetic music is an acapella version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which is set against the making of the penultimate song’s infamous music video. This cover lends an eerie mood that foreshadows the release of the “Nevermind” album, which sent Kurt’s career into a direction that he wasn’t prepared for.

The title “Montage of Heck” pops up literally throughout with montages of archives comprised of surreal imagery, in addition to animated sequences of Cobain’s drawings and personal journals. As disorienting and random some of them are, they’re thrilling, in a metaphorical sense, for how Cobain’s brain functions on a regular basis.

Additional animation is used in sequences that are based off of voice recordings from Cobain during his teenage years. The detail of Cobain as a teen is intimate, as well as  settings that were pinnacles during that phase of his life.

“Montage of Heck” stands out the most in its home movie footage of Cobain and Love raising their daughter, Frances Bean Cobain. These moments are where Kurt is at his most earnest, as a father, which is tragic concerning how he died so young despite the impassioned love he had for Frances.

Anyone who believes they know everything there is about Kurt Cobain will be proven wrong in “Montage of Heck.” It’s a refreshingly honest film that is both stirring and heart-breaking, and most of all a fulfilling gift for die-hard Nirvana fans.


RECOMMENDED: Nirvana fan or not, the subversive structure of “Montage of Heck” will appease well to music documentary aficionados.