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Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck
Cobain's mythology portrays him as a tortured genius, one whose art was profound and whose process was ultimately mysterious. The standard documentary format seems like a perfect tool to tear that down, to use the recollections of those who knew him to paint a multi-faceted portrait of a man rather than a myth. Instead, director Brett Morgen goes the opposite direction, taking the art, expression, and ephemera that Cobain left behind and trying to visualize them, transform them into something more than reality. Morgen has new interviews with Kurt's parents, his sister, his stepmother, one of his longtime girlfriends, and yes, Courtney Love (more on her later), but what he focuses on is a wealth of home movies, photographs, journal entries, magazine articles, TV interviews, and audio tapes. Computer graphics pull out and highlight certain paragraphs or ideas, and even full-blown animation is used to illustrate audio material or journal entries. Morgen doesn't just put the contract that Nirvana signed with Sub-Pop Records on screen, instead, it zooms past the "camera" like a giant monolith, to the sound of some of the band's music.
For fans, there's no doubt that a great deal of this material might be interesting, but even I have heard people talking about Cobain's journals and notes before, suggesting that what Morgen has isn't entirely new. Furthermore, there are times when Morgen does nothing but hold the material up, offering no insight or detail on what it is he's showing us beyond the content of Cobain's own words. Clarity is no problem: the viewer should be fully capable of putting together, for instance, the story of how Kurt and Courtney's guardianship of their child, Frances, is called into question after Lynn Hirschberg's incendiary Vanity Fair profile is published, and again later when Hirschberg announces her intent to write a book about it. Yet, it seems like it requires so little of Morgen to jazz up newspaper clippings with flashy animation when he has many of the people involved at his disposal. Morgen may not be obligated to make a documentary for people like myself who are bringing little knowledge of Cobain's work and life to the table, but there are plenty of times during Montage of Heck when it feels like he's failing to contextualize the meaning of a journal entry or a snippet of Kurt and Courtney's home videos within his film (what lead him to place the material at this point in the film, and what message is he trying to convey about Kurt?). Although the movie progresses mostly chronologically, the film can get sidetracked by material for material's sake, in the hope that curiosity will be enough to satisfy the viewer as a reason it was included.
For some Nirvana fans, the presence of Love herself in the documentary will be a red flag. As evidenced by the film's Amazon and IMDb pages, there are quite a few people who believe she was bad news, a negative influence on him at best, and even others would go so far as to cast her as a member in a conspiracy theory surrounding his death. Frankly, the amount of lore surrounding Cobain's suicide is so pervasive and well-known that it might even be safe to say a genuinely unbiased documentary is impossible, because some party would find any deference to one person over another to be a sign of spin. To his credit, Morgen backs off, allowing the home video footage provided of the two of them spending time together to speak volumes about their relationship, but even that feels like only half of an approach.
It also has to be stated that Cobain, even though his art was and remains well-loved and influential, was still a young man when Nirvana made it big, and his audience consisted of alienated youth among his own age group. The line between poetry and pretentiousness is a thin one, and there are more than a few times when Kurt's manic scrawlings read as one would expect any angst-ridden teenager's might. There are obvious reasons why Montage of Heck exists: Cobain was both an important figure to many, and there's no denying the interest those viewers will have in seeing the material that Morgen has uncovered. Nonetheless, both his legacy and his material come off as unfulfilled in Heck, which struggles with the impossible desire to be a book, a record, a photo album, and a movie all at the same time.
The Blu-ray, Video, and Audio
DVDTalk was sent a check disc of Montage of Heck, so no conclusive assessment of the packaging or presentation can be offered. The final Blu-ray ought to feature a 1.78:1 1080p AVC video presentation and DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 sound, plus English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing. There is also a deluxe version of the release, which features the movie on both Blu-ray and DVD, a 31-track album of rare recordings on CD and casette, a hardbound book, a puzzle (!), movie poster, postcards, and a bookmark.
Two video extras are included. A selection of deleted scenes are all from interview sessions with Kurt's family, and are presented uncut. As with the film itself, this material only struck me as fitfully interesting, but fans with more investment in Cobain will probably enjoy the trims more.
The other video extra is an interview with director Brett Morgen (12:55), in which he talks about his style and how he managed to get ahold of the material used for the film (as well as footage of him actually exploring it. It's only a shame that Kurt's daughter Frances, whose participation as a producer was instrumental, is not also interviewed.
The disc also contains a gallery of some of the archival material.
For those relatively uninformed about Cobain's legacy, Montage of Heck is a little like diving into the deep end, but even with that in mind, Morgen has more ambition than he does an idea of how to execute it. More voices, more perspectives, and more focus would help the materials at his disposal paint a picture of a person who's no longer around to tell his story. Recommended, with caveats.
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