Sadly, I am not a child of the 90s. I could not experience the power and awesomeness of Nirvana when it was alive. I was not there when “Smells Like Teen Spirit” first blasted onto college radios, when Nevermind defined an entire generation of music, when Nirvana performed at Reading Festival or when Kurt Cobain’s tragic suicide filled headlines. That being said, my age has not stopped me from appreciating Nirvana’s music. The fact that they were able to pioneer a new movement of rock with only three albums and still stay relevant today, is an accomplishment unmatched by any other in modern music history. Despite all of this fame and critical acclaim, Kurt Cobain has remained a mysterious figure. Ever since reading about Cobain’s suicide, I have been interested in figuring out who the man really was. There have been multiple attempts at portraying Kurt Cobain but none of them have proven to be successful. After hearing that HBO was going to make a Cobain estate-approved documentary about Kurt Cobain, I was immediately intrigued but also reluctant at the same time.
Portraying one of the greatest rock stars of all time isn’t an easy job. Trying to evoke the spirit of a real human being in a narrative film will always lack that sense of raw power, especially for someone as troubled and unbelievably talented as Kurt Cobain. Fortunately, Montage of Heck hits all the right notes and is the documentary that Kurt Cobain deserves. Just like how Nirvana took a familiar sound of music and renewed it, director Brett Morgan reconstructs an old formula for music documentaries, providing us with an experience like no other.
A major distinction between Montage of Heck and other music documentaries is that it isn’t made for Nirvana geeks to ponder on (*cough* Michael Jackson’s This Is It *cough*) nor does it trash Kurt Cobain’s image or legacy. Montage of Heck avoids those extremes and instead provides a personal and intimate connection with Cobain’s life. Instead of just focusing on Nirvana’s rush to stardome, Montage of Heck devotes a lot more time to Cobain’s struggles during his early life and his tragic downfall after Nirvana went mainstream. The way the documentary is structured and styled also gives off a Nirvana vibe. Montage of Heck avoids using a simple concoction of loosely stringing together bits of interviews and archive footage and opts for a more scrapbook like appearance.
A myriad of different mediums are applied. Interviews, old footage, animated sequences, and snippets of journals and songbooks are all edited together mesmerizingly to Nirvana’s music. When certain points of Cobain’s life are being discussed, the film will cut to pieces of song lyrics from Nirvana’s music, as if these songs had been imbedded in Cobain’s heart and mind for his whole life. Early in the film, after covering the emotional abuse Cobain suffered as a child, we cut to the opening lyrics of “Something in the Way.” It’s hard to look at the young and joyous Cobain and not cry at how his pain will eventually be turned into amazing art but also lead him to his demise.
Something that many documentaries nowadays mess up is balancing filmmaking with subject matter. Documentaries tend to focus more on subject as if the content is enough to keep the film afloat. This is not true. In a documentary, filmmaking become the most important aspect to watch out for. A well-made, nicely constructed documentary about a random person’s life is more worth someone’s time than a poorly edited, sloppily formed documentary about World War II. In Montage of Heck‘s case, both are splendid. Every song choice, every drawing, every recording, every interview from eight years of intensive research has been stitched together for maximum effect. Maybe Cobain’s short unhappy life is too short for any real insight into the pain of an artist. Maybe Cobain is so secretive we may never know the man at all. Oh well, whatever, nevermind. Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck gets an A+.
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