After viewing Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, you may find yourself hesitant to refer to its titular rock icon as the Godfather of Grunge, the Voice of the ‘90s, or any other title that might further his status as a figure of generational idolization. Unflinching and uncompromising in its unyielding determination to unveil the hidden psychology of Kurt Cobain, gone is the tepid characteristic of most rockumentaries that continue worship and ignore humanity. I suspect that it might come as an overwhelming shock to Cobain’s biggest admirers; you won’t be much hearing about MTV success, critical acclaim, the untouchable gauze of his influence. You will, instead, live through the interludes of his emotionally tumultuous childhood, his drug-addicted, oft-miserable journey into fame, and his clamorous marriage to the self-obsessed Courtney Love.
Directed by Brett Morgen with unorthodox enterprise, Montage of Heck utilizes the documentary staple that is the one-on-one interview (featuring appearances from Krist Novoselic, Love, his parents, his stepmother, and his pre-fame girlfriend), but is much more reliant on found-footage, rare pre-recorded monologues by Cobain himself, and heterodox animation that both illustrates situations not caught on camera and brings the latter’s drawings and writings to life. You really feel as though you're standing next to the man himself, consuming his neuroses, understanding of but never able to help heal his most personal demons.
Such idealization has swept the sidelines of Cobain’s persona that it makes me like Montage of Heck all the more. I’ve always been a fan of the era defining music of Nirvana, but there hasn’t been a second of my enjoyment during which I haven’t been wary of his still infatuated circle of fans, who irritatingly romanticize every single detail of his life, who hate Courtney more than they hate Yoko, who act like he was a saint when he was, in fact, a damaged human who needed to be viewed as one but never necessarily was. Because Montage of Heck is so disinterested in broadening the girth of Rolling Stone level materialism, the effect is remarkable — we thought we had him mostly figured out. Not so.
Anyone with an eye for pop culture knows of his lengthy heroin use and his longtime battles with depression, but the film gives us an inside look into these facts with haunting truth. Home videos depict Kurt and Courtney’s frightening marriage, characterized within a crumbling apartment, with antics thoroughly drug-fueled; Morgen’s spotlight on Cobain’s private journals portray him as a man in touch with himself but also as a man ultra-sensitive to criticism, to success, to his emotions. Montage of Heck sheds more light on to what destroyed Cobain, not what audiences perceived his psyche to, and it’s tenacious.
You won’t find a better documentary this year, perhaps only rivaled by Amy, which similarly took an immensely talented musician’s tragedy and made it into an unromanticized vision. Cobain’s biggest fans will be left broken, and his sporadic ones, like myself, shaken. Montage of Heck is extraordinary. B+