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movie: Montage of Heck (2015)

Montage of Heck is the recently released documentary about Kurt Cobain’s life, and we got to see it in the theatre during Pickford’s Doctober. In a word, it was an unsurprisingly depressing, but compelling glimpse into an interior life that I did not know a whole lot about. It was well put together and enjoyable (in a depressing way) to watch. It was also fairly interpretive, on which more in a minute.

montage of heckAs a piece of art in its own right, I found this to be a fine film. I like the collage effect, of old home videos, recent video (of interviews with Kurt’s parents, Courtney Love, and Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic, among others), concert footage, stills and animations from Kurt’s journals and sketchbooks, and animations of Kurt’s life. It was dynamic and expressive, like him. I learned a lot about him (I like Nirvana but am no super-fan, and no expert on his life), like that all-too-familiar combination of genius creativity, hyperactivity, and disturbance. I didn’t know about his stomach problems or the ex-girlfriend Tracy. It’s an enthralling story, and this movie made it immediate, and moving.

On the other hand, I am troubled by my lack of understanding of how real any of this is. I said earlier that the film is quite interpretive. The soundtrack includes synthesized and orchestral renditions of Nirvana songs: what would Kurt think about that? And the animations of his journals and sketches assume chronology and intention; who knows for sure? Contemporary footage of Kurt’s father and step-mother leaves the former looking nearly catatonic; I can’t believe there isn’t an editorial angle on that. Kurt’s daughter Frances is a co-executive producer. She’s family; she has as much business here as anyone. But she never knew him, as she was not yet two when he died. Even with the best of intentions, who knows how much she got right? Not to assume she had total control over the content…

Any time an artist dies, their work will be interpreted and presented to the public by someone else. And all artists die, although not all so young as Kurt Cobain. This is not a new concern. But this film did more interpretive work than it necessarily needed to do, and that just got me a little curious, and a little anxious. I like knowing where the line is drawn, and here I don’t know. If I knew more about his life beforehand I’d be better equipped to make judgments, but of course that would come with preconceptions and bias, too. And then there’s this guy who says it’s all a load of sh*t, and who do we believe?

As Husband pointed out, the footage of Kurt and Courtney in their apartment with baby Frances was hard to watch. Some of their home life goofing off was sweet, in a messy way – it really looked like they had fun together – but once there was a baby around it got more straightforwardly disturbing. What did we expect, though?

While I’m exploring expectations: the movie does not deal with his suicide at all, other than stating it in plain white text on a black screen. I’m sure some of us came for the sensationalism of learning more about his death, and those folks will be disappointed. But I can’t argue with the dignity – or maybe just the shying away from pain – involved in turning away. At what point should we expect his family or anyone who loved him to turn his death into movie theatre entertainment? What do we want, crime scene photos of splattered brain matter? I’m okay with this treatment.

This was a pretty great movie, unto itself. But it left me with more questions than answers, and feeling a little unsettled about the idea of Truth. Maybe that’s not the point. Beware Montage of Heck as an authoritative source on the life of Kurt Cobain; but for visual imagery and a moving experience, please enjoy.


Rating: a conflicted 7 unwashed locks.

One Response

  1. […] documentary reminded me some of Montage of Heck, last year’s documentary about Kurt Cobain, for its focus on the heartbreaking genius, […]

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