Kurt Cobain despised fame. That’s not a hard fact, but more of an accepted truth, passed down over the years following the musician’s tragic death, until it hardened into an essential pillar of his rock-star mythology. There’s certainly plenty of evidence to support the idea that Cobain was a private person who was dragged, suddenly and unhappily, into the harsh glow of the spotlight. When Nirvana blew up, transforming overnight into the biggest band in the world, the shaggy-haired frontman was vocal about his discomfort: He shrank from interviews and publicly rebelled against his own success. By the winter of 1994, right before he took his own life, everyone seemed certain Cobain wanted out of the business—so much so that his suicide became popularly attributed not just to depression and heroin addiction, but to a desperate need to escape the eyes and ears of the world.
The music, however, tells a slightly different story. To listen to In Utero, Nirvana’s final studio record, is to hear a man wrestling with his ethos—the desire to alienate listeners with abrasive sonic tantrums, but also to write the kind of songs capable, in their melodic perfection, of dominating airwaves and arenas. That tension, between the sensitive loner the guy was and the rock god he couldn’t help but become, is all over Kurt Cobain: Montage Of Heck, HBO’s intimate documentary portrait of the late, great artist. It’s become a cliché to say that something reveals the man behind the legend, but the Cobain seen and reminisced about here really does seem more human, in his mess of conflicting desires, than the anti-celebrity celebrity who continues to grace magazine covers two decades after his death. “He wanted to be a success,” insists one interview subject. “Praise was hard for him to take,” says another.
Montage Of Heck spans the entire length of Cobain’s life, from his childhood in Aberdeen, Washington, to his death, at 27, in Seattle. That may sound like Behind The Music territory, but familiar ground is treaded in unfamiliar ways. There are no date stamps or expository narration, and the talking-head interviews—candid remarks from Cobain’s parents, from his ex-girlfriend, from his widow Courtney Love, from his ex-bandmate Krist Novoselic—are sparingly dispersed throughout. The meat of this Montage is unearthed materials: Super 8 home movies, old photographs, diary entries, tour posters, magazine articles, love letters, performance footage, handwritten lyrics, and abandoned audio recordings. Director Brett Morgen, who made the electrifying Chicago 10, has become a master of archival manipulation. Here, he makes something lyrical from the detritus of Cobain’s career, forging a rock doc out of a scrapbook collage.
Like With The Lights Out, that decade-old box set of unreleased demos, Montage Of Heck doubles as a history of the band, but not an especially informative or contexual one. Crucial turning points are covered only in the raw materials they produced, while controversies and major milestones are addressed via excerpts of rock journalism. Dave Grohl essentially joins the band off-camera, replacing a slew of other drummers that are never introduced; one minute he’s absent from the film, the next he’s right there, cracking wise during a press day. (Given his general willingness to talk about the Nirvana days, it’s odd that Grohl isn’t among the scant few Morgen interviews.) The goal isn’t education but evocation, and Montage does a superb job of making you feel like you’re experiencing Cobain’s rise to prominence firsthand. Weirdly thrilling, for example, is a sequence in which the director cuts to various prospective band names, each scrawled on a piece of notepaper, before Nirvana is finally settled upon. It’s physical documentation of a creative genesis.
Morgen brings an expert pop flair to the assignment: Cobain’s doodles, which suggest he could have had a second career in underground cartooning, lurch to animated life, propelled by a library of licensed tunes. (Every song on the soundtrack is either a Nirvana track or an instrumental cover of a Nirvana track.) The impeccably curated music helps make the more widely explored chapters of this origin story (a.k.a. the band’s contentious dance with the media) feel less like rote exposition. But Montage Of Heck is best at its most personal, its most confessional. As in Chicago 10, Morgen gorgeously animates several snippets of recovered audio, in this case powerfully dramatizing a long, intense anecdote Cobain delivers about his first sexual experience and the first time he tried to kill himself. (Sadly, the two incidents were intimately related.) And no stylistic tricks are required for the footage of Cobain and Love alone in their apartment, possibly under the influence but also plainly, deeply smitten with each other. Besides offering a clearer vision of Kurt and Courtney than Kurt & Courtney did, these brief snippets provide the opportunity to see Cobain do his best Chris Cornell impression, mustache and all.
Some of Montage Of Heck feels almost too invasive, akin to stealing a glance at those death scene photos released by Seattle police last year. Would Cobain, who felt enough like an exposed nerve as it was, be mortified to learn that his private thoughts and fears, scrawled in chicken scratch, would one day be posthumously spooled up for the world to see? This is the price, it seems, of becoming one of the biggest stars in rock history, accidentally or not. Montage understands Cobain as an icon, but also as the mixed-up kid who got too famous too fast, and it seems content revealing, rather than reconciling, his contradictions. Poring over the discarded artifacts the film collects—the deep (and not-so-deep) thoughts Cobain put on paper and tape—could be the closest we ever get to “knowing” him. Of course, there’s also the songs, the timeless blasts of piss, vinegar, and sarcastic wit he left behind. They speak volumes, too.