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.