After this, or perhaps instead of this, you may want to read: 90% of ‘Montage Of Heck’ is Bullshit.
Joplin and Morrison were already dead legends by the time I got to them. Janis, I understood. Her scream, with all of the emotion springing through it from deep within, was absolute. Arresting. Jim, I never cared for. Proto-mumblecore, yeah? Looked good with his shirt off. Cool, whatever. Either way though, I’d roll my eyes ever so slightly at the pedestals they were put on, even by kids my own age, who only experienced them through a thick lens of heavily commercialized nostalgia. Only knowing them as faces on posters with song lyrics superimposed, out of context enough to mean nothing or everything. Sage wisdom from people who were obviously deeply, deeply flawed. Sharing their secrets to a better life, with all the inherent irony only a high schooler can subvert into some kind of self-assurance.
I had to think those icons couldn’t possibly have existed exactly as my generation knew them. Since their time, who they were had surely metamorphosed, through a sycophantic telephone game, into what they represented to other people, and a throng of strangers seeking a suitable idol. Their identities couldn’t have been preserved through that process. Surely, some edges had worn away. Some details were lost forever. In another 50 years, they’ll basically be fictional characters, loosely based on some albums, interviews, and ideals.
Cobain, on the other hand, I was there for. I was about 12 when I got my hands on Bleach. I was in middle school when Nevermind blew up. I bought In Utero the day it came out. I learned every song with my first bandmates, most of which, myself included, wouldn’t have ever picked up a guitar so fast otherwise. I spent the whole night anchored to a land-line phone with my first girlfriend on the other end, the biggest fan I knew, when Kurt was found dead.
And for better or worse, Kurt Cobain was awarded one of those fancy pedestals. Misunderstood genius. Visionary that arrived to a world that wasn’t ready for him. Changed music and changed us all, but burnt himself down in the process. Dead champion of a golden age, when things were more real than they are now, at least for a little while. Our hero. And I saw a new generation rise up, and they found him, and they held him up, like my peers had held up Jim and Janis. I was seeing it happen from the other side. I could watch it play out, like an experiment. I was curious: What would Kurt Cobain become, in this recreation being pieced together by a new regime of disenfranchised? What would be warped, what complexities would be smoothed over?
At the same time, I’ve never been sure what Kurt Cobain was to me. I had this feeling, like I knew him, despite knowing logically that I didn’t. At least, I felt that I might understand him, if I got to hang out with him. But sometimes I wasn’t sure if the things he said and sang resonated with me because I had been so influenced by his earlier expressions, or if he really was truly a voice for my particular lunch table, if not my generation. Was he a product of my reality, or was my reality a product of Kurt Cobain and MTV and Seattle’s little moment in the non-Sun?
Kurt seemed to be a constant paradox. He hated interviews. He didn’t want to be famous. But he wanted Nirvana to be the best band in the world. Everything was a joke. Nothing was a joke. I can still relate to that, now. I take nothing seriously. I take everything seriously. Half of me thinks that it’s all hopeless and worthless, compared to what the other half of me thinks it all could be. The Smells Like Teen Spirit riff was a joke, a mockery of Kurt’s idea of the ultimate pop song, twisted up via Boston’s More Than A Feeling. But it was a joke that he committed to. Followed through with. He knew what he was doing, right? I had always wondered if the song’s destiny made the joke funnier… Or not as funny… Or if it was only a joke in the first place in case it didn’t completely explode. Kind of like joking about asking out the hottest girl in class, well, unless she’s down. I don’t know, I never knew really what was up with Kurt Cobain. But I was pretty sure that he was more, and also less, than the idealistic archetype he was becoming in the collective heart and mind of this new generation of distortion pedals’ target audience.
All of this was not really at the forefront of my mind when I sat down to see Brett Morgen’s unique Cobain documentary, Montage Of Heck, at the Arclight in Hollywood last week. I had heard it was good. I liked Nirvana. In the moment, it was just something to do. Had I thought about it for more than 30 seconds, I probably could have gone in with the understanding that it would be a documentary entirely focused Kurt (as the obvious title obviously states) rather than Nirvana. But since I’m an idiot, all of these thoughts on Kurt only resurfaced during and after the movie, once I had realized I wasn’t going to see more than brief glimpses of Nirvana recording albums. I wouldn’t see Ben Shepherd. We wouldn’t even see Dave Grohl join the band. The movie would continue not one second beyond Kurt’s death, nor deviate one degree from his life.
So the upside to my ignorance is that the documentary hit me, dead-on. Going in with jaded expectations would have dulled the first real impact the film delivers: Seeing a little blonde toddler say, innocently, “I’m Kurt Cobain.” I had a vague notion that he had adopted that moniker somewhere along the line, like so many of his peers born with dorky names. I thought he was a Donald or a Dale or something and just never cared enough to look it up. But that’s mostly beside the point; The footage wasn’t just a quick tease for emotional color. It continued on, leading into interviews with his mother, father, and step-parents. And you realize that you’re starting from the start, and you’re getting it from those who knew him intimately. And they’re being honest with you. Courtney tells you unequivocally that his decision to take time off from touring before In Utero was made so he could stay at home and do heroin. They’re not sugar-coating anything. You really are getting to know the guy. It made me a little uneasy. Like I didn’t deserve it. I didn’t belong there. Had the movie somehow been made without the cooperation and blessing of his family, I probably would have walked out of the theater, out of respect and moral obligation.
In the first half of the movie, there’s a segment that I found to be the most memorable, the most valuable: Kurt’s own voice plays from a tape, over an animated sequence he’s narrating. He sounds young. He’s talking faster than I’ve ever heard him talk. He’s reading from his journal, it seems. There’s a subtle sarcasm in his tone, mocking not what he is saying, but rather the audacity of reporting something so personal; Something so limited in audience getting an official announcement. The thinly-veiled embarrassment of self-presentation is so proto-90s. It’s full-on Judd Nelson. But he’s telling us all about that ever-so-important summer or two every young dude goes through, where you kind of discover everything all at once. He knew his derelict friends were kind of shitty, but their cons for stealing booze worked well enough, and there weren’t too many other rebellions to join after all. The movie really drives home how hyper-sensitive Cobain was to the plights of all living things. He feels disgusted and alienated by his friends’ taking advantage of the town “retard,” when they distract her to sneak down and steal liquor from her parents’ basement. He doesn’t even think she’s handicapped. Just illiterate. But he shows up at her door one day alone. He had been contemplating suicide, but decided he didn’t want to die a virgin. So he asks her if she wants to fuck, and she accepts the invitation casually. But when she reveals in an offhand comment that it’s her cousins that typically use her in such a way, Kurt’s disgusted, and bails, only to be branded a “retard fucker” in school. And another thing you learn in this documentary is that humiliation, to Kurt Cobain, is the offense above all others. So he goes for it. Suicide. He lays down on a railroad track with a rock in his lap. The train comes. He sits there. It’s on the other track.
As far as Kurt Cobain the musician and Nirvana frontman goes, there’s little in the way of previously unreleased material or footage. There’s the rough recording of a Beatles cover that has been talked about, and there’s a lot of bits and pieces of the titular Montage Of Heck, a cassette tape full of random hollers, jokes, goofy samples, noise experimentation, hyperactive noodling. There are some super rough, barely coherent demos of some well-known Nirvana songs. But this is all incidental to the real focus of the documentary, which is Kurt himself: How his mind worked. What he cared about. How he was with Courtney. How he was with Frances, in the short time between her birth and his death.
There’s one moment that’s extremely uncomfortable. I mean, there’s plenty of clips of Courtney and Kurt fucking around at home, where Courtney’s got her tits out everywhere, and you’re basically watching a trailer for two zit-covered junkies’ sex tape. But that’s nothing compared to the quiet, graphic vulgarity of the footage where Frances is getting her first haircut, and Kurt is strung out, barely upright. He’s holding her, but almost dropping her. She’s crying. Courtney – even with her reputation and all of the horror stories, you realize she was the more responsible addict, at least half the time – she’s expressing her discontent with his state, but in the subdued sort of way that you do when you know it’s not the first or last time. And it’s heartbreaking.
But it’s a crucial piece of the picture, if we’re to know who Kurt Cobain really was. And that is the movie’s lasting achievement, to share that un-dressed intimate knowledge with everyone. I feel a little weird even referring to it as a rock documentary. It’s not really about the music. It’s less dramatized than a biopic, more personal than an exhibit… There’s not really a box that Montage Of Heck fits into perfectly. But its accomplishment is that Kurt Cobain can now be more than a face on a poster with the lyrics to All Apologies superimposed, for sale for $10 in the back of a jeans store. He can be something real and accessible, and not some idealized, untouchable icon. He becomes more special, and more flawed, simultaneously possessing qualities we can aspire to have, and faults we can endeavor to avoid. I don’t think that takes him down from his pedestal. I think it brings us all up to it.