I swore I wouldn't watch any more unauthorized music
biographies after the last few (Kiss,
Korn) but I like Nirvana too much to pass up the
opportunity to take a look at Teen Spirit: The
Tribute to Kurt Cobain. This film suffers from the
same fatal flaw that all other unauthorized rock docs
suffer from: The total lack of music by the artist in
question. Music itself is both the vehicle and the
message and any musician worth anything doesn't need
photo ops, videos, interviews, and documentaries to
tell their story. The songs themselves do it and
Nirvana exemplified this more than most.
delicate turns of phrase Kurt Cobain used in his
lyrics to the soft-loud dynamic lifted from the Pixies
to the brutal raw power mixed with beautiful melody
broadcast in their live performances, Nirvana really
embodied everything that can go right with music even
as Cobain's inner demons tore him apart. There is
nothing that Teen Spirit can say that will
define the man and the band better than, say "About a
Girl", "Something in the Way", "Rape Me", or "Where Did You Sleep
Having said that, Teen Spirit is by far the
best of the four unauthorized bios I've reviewed. The
interviews (as usual, with people on the periphery of
the band's career: A photographer, an editor for
The Village Voice, a SubPop publicist) are
actually more enlightening than usual. There's the
usual vagueness early on as no one clearly articulates
what it was in Aberdeen and Seattle, Washington that
set the stage for such extraordinary music (only
Cobain and bassist Krist Noveselic would be able to do
that) but once the talk turns to Nirvana's public
record, their recorded output, their influence on
fans, and their reaction to success, the interviewees
become much more interesting. They discuss what an odd
couple Nirvana and fame were and make Teen
Spirit surprisingly engaging.
The most important material is the modest selection of
archival interviews with the band, sometimes painful
reminders that Cobain's 1994 suicide was foretold in
his public unease with the life he had chosen for
himself. Hindsight's a bitch and there are a number of
cringe-worthy moments when Cobain expresses doubt and
disgust with himself that, at the time, seemed like
just another grungey dismissal of mainstream culture.
Of course, we now know that these were the the cracks
showing through. One particular interview, apparently
taken at an MTV Video Music Award ceremony, shows Kurt
at his most sickened, talking about how they had sold
out to the music video channel in order to keep
selling records. He (and the rest of the band) had a
wicked wit that only helps mask what must have been an
unbearable sense of self-loathing. I'm no more qualified
to speculate on Cobain's motivations than the folks
interviewed in Teen Spirit, but Cobain seems to
be saying that the life of a superstar rocker is a
life not worth living. The film is grateful that he
was able to leave a few songs behind at least, but
without those songs played here the point becomes
purely hypothetical. As a tribute to Cobain's talent,
Nirvana's mournful unplugged CD still makes a much more moving and
The full-frame video is nothing special. Most of it is shot on film, so at least it has a more cinematic look than other
unauthorized bios. The parts shot on video (fan interviews mostly) look fine as well.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio is nothing special. The interviews sound fine, the non-Nirvana music sounds fine.
There are no real extras, although the packaging brags that the film is the director's cut with never before seen footage. Hey,
I never seen it before!
The definitive story of Nirvana hasn't (and probably shouldn't) be told on film. Several documentaries exist on the subject that
focus on more specific aspects, like Hype!, about the
rise and fall of the Seattle scene, and Nick Broomfield's muckraking Kurt & Courtney about that fateful relationship.
Meanwhile the recent Cobain biography "Heavier Than Heaven" attempts to focus on the man's inner struggles.
Teen Spirit is, like its unauthorized brethren, concerned more with turning a quick buck. In spite of this it still manages to
offer a few insightful moments. But I guess that's inevitable when dealing with such an interesting subject. The best way to
experience Nirvana, however, is still a
hand full of CDs and a really loud stereo.