Saturday, June 6, 2015

SheffDocFest: Cobain-Montage of Heck

          "Rule 1) learn not to play your instrument
              Rule 2) don't hurt girls when you dance (or any other time)" - Kurt's Journals

The story of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana is well known to anyone lucky enough to be born on or before 1990 – he is arguably one of the few musicians to change the direction of popular music’s aesthetic during his lifetime (I’ll let you have fun figuring out who else might qualify) – yet it never hurts to re-familiarise yourself with a truly compelling story.

Cobain: Montage of Heck (great film; questionable title) is the story of the life of Kurt from birth to death, told through interviews with friends and family alongside a litter of images and enhanced animations from Kurt's prolific journals, as well as original cartoons synced with recordings of him messing around with his home cassette recorder and other audio including, of course, amazing live performances.

The film’s first main achievement is to remind latent Nirvana fans how incredible their music really was. As the narrative of his life is unravelled over the 130+ minutes the different moods are all heightened perfectly with Nirvana songs: the acoustic gem 'Oh Me' (a Meat Puppets cover) as his parents divorce; the harsh Scentless Apprentice over a montage of his surreal and brutal drawings; a xylophone and strings rendition of Lithium; Breed over an excessive rock-tour montage...

The most compelling sequence is a beautifully illustrated episode of how Kurt tries to lose his virginity but eventually leads to a fraught suicide attempt. Narrated by Kurt himself and accompanied with a string version of Teen Spirit, the tale is articulate, honest and tragic and soulfully captures the small town narrative of thousands of rural-American Reagan youth: alienated, victimised and desperate for escape.

Montage also wonderfully captures the MTV phenomenon of the early 1990s.  As everyone now knows, MTV is a joke (and doesn't even play music).  But it's easy to forget due to its modern banality how radical an aesthetic revolution MTV originally was.  It had its own editing and visual style: Pop culture, collage, television, colours, consumption, brands, kitsch, politics, boredom, speed... rock'n'roll.  Nirvana arrived at just the right moment to fit into this medium and then began to destroy itself live on television.  A dark postmodern fairy tale.

When the destructive heroin inevitably arrives, it's glossed over as simply a chronological event in 1987 before moving to the Geffen signing. It's only the later arrival of Courtney Love (70 minutes in) when the heroin gets the deeper and brighter spotlight. And it gets very dark and uncomfortable, very quickly.  It seems like the filmmakers have by this point stopped the hyper frenetic rhythmic editing and taken a more opiate approach with long and gritty home movie shots of the couple messing around on massive amounts of heroin. They barely acknowledge each other at times, seeming to exist solely in a smack bubble. And it's not pretty. If Trainspotting ever piqued your interest into the stuff, Cobain will shake you out of it...

Courtney smugly bragging that she is 'built like an oxen' so it didn't matter that she was shooting heroin whilst pregnant is one of the truly ugly moments in the film. Kurt's animations were disturbing and some of the music was...difficult...but this scene is truly challenging. It's hard to have any respect for her after that, especially spoken in a recent interview when off the smack.  And the events around the baby's first birthday are nothing short of tragic.

Kurt Cobain has had hours of documentaries dedicated to him and his music (the most interesting and high-profile to date being Nick Broomfield's Kurt & Courtney - a brilliant double bill one day....) and there will be plenty more to follow, but Cobain: Montage of Heck is the first to capture his life using an aesthetic and style as well as content to illuminate him. At times funny, dark, poetic, uncomfortable, exciting and fresh – Brett Morgan has finally done justice to a modern pop-culture genius of our time.

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