Teen Spirit: The Tribute to Kurt Cobain
Music Video Distributors // Unrated // $19.95 // August 14, 2001
Review by Gil Jawetz | posted October 22, 2001
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I swore I wouldn't watch any more unauthorized music biographies after the last few (Kiss, Eminem, and 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.

From the 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 Last Night?"

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 gut-wrenching experience.

VIDEO:
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.

AUDIO:
The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio is nothing special. The interviews sound fine, the non-Nirvana music sounds fine.

EXTRAS:
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!

FINAL THOUGHTS:
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.



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