SXSW MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Montage Of Heck’ Is One Of The Best Music Documentaries Ever Made


Film: Montage Of Heck
Starring: Courtney Love, Krist Novoselic
Directed by: Brett Morgen

Built atop a wealth of never-before-seen video, recently unearthed audio, and journal entries stretching the entirety of Kurt Cobain’s life, Montage Of Heck is the quintessential documentary about Nirvana’s often misunderstood frontman.

We begin with Kurt’s childhood, which is expressed through home video footage and stories from people who watched the young icon develop. We learn of Kurt’s happy early years, which often never get mentioned, and we even see a toddler version of Cobain enjoying numerous birthdays surrounded by his closest family members. His parents, now separated, share how their decision to no longer be together weighed on Kurt, and director Brett Morgen seem to point to their divorce as a turning point in young Cobain’s life. It’s at this point he begins to become more rebellious, which leads him to live with numerous family members for as long as they can stand him, and far more removed from society. He has friends, but still prefers to be on his own. He creates constantly, and Morgen uses animated versions of Cobain’s actual sketches and notes to further illustrate this point.

When the story of Cobain’s evolution from happy child to the man who many viewed as a tortured soul hits a point where footage of supporting photography exists, Montage Of Heck improvises with gorgeous animated sequences depicting Cobain at various stages in life. While the scenes play, Morgen uses clips of Cobain telling his own life story for narration. He also uses newly released home audio montages, which consist of demos and random conversations Cobain would have with himself when no one else was around. It’s these moments, which as far I know have never been shared with the world, that make the first half of Montage so damn captivating. For the first time ever, anyone can be a fly on the wall of a room where Kurt Cobain is alone with his thoughts. It’s utterly fascinating.

As the film reaches its halfway point, the story transitions from the boy known as Kurt, to the person known for being the frontman of Nirvana. Though the band is given ample time in the story, with Nirvana’s own Krist Novoselic offering insight never before shared, it’s Cobain’s relationship with girlfriend (and later wife) Courtney Love that takes center stage. Viewers spend close to an hour watching their relationship evolve, and during that time we’re treated to numerous private home videos that, again, have never previously been shared. For me, this was the most exciting and interesting aspect of the film, as it allows audiences to see several sides to Cobain and Love that the media has never really been able to share. We see them flirting with one another, joking about the constant comparisons between Nirvana and Guns N’ Roses in the media, and doing their best to raise their daughter Frances.

It’s the birth of Frances, as well as the ensuing media crusade to question the couple’s parenting abilities, that Morgen uses to kick off the final chapter of Cobain’s life. Everything we’re shown about Kurt, as well as his relationship with Courtney, offers nothing that leads us to believe the pair would be anything less than good, hardworking parents. They both struggle with addiction, yes, but they also both recognize the need to create a safe and nurturing home for their child. They both felt they never had that kind of life growing up and, just like any parent, they want better for Frances. The media, it seems, did not care.

You may expect Montage Of Heck to end with Kurt’s suicide in Seattle, but Morgen and his crew decide instead to focus on what led to Kurt’s coma in Rome a month prior to his death. It’s a move some will no doubt question, as it could be seen as an attempt to downplay the fact Cobain took his own life, but in my mind Morgen is simply trying to tell us something we don’t already know. The death of Kurt Cobain has been covered thousands of times over the last two decades, but the preceding months are touched upon far less often, even though it’s what happened during that time that likely led to Cobain’s untimely death. Morgen never states this directly, but it’s clear from the way everything is presented that outside influence played a big role in the way things played out.

I would never consider myself a die-hard fan of Nirvana, but I found myself constantly enthralled with everything playing out on screen. For the first time in my entire existence I was able to step back and see Kurt Cobain not as a musician, but rather as just another person who happened to become famous while pursuing his passion. He never asked for the world to worship his work, and I believe now that if he had his way none of the fame and madness that followed the release of Nevermind would have ever happened. Kurt simply wanted to create, and as he matured he also wanted a family. Unfortunately, life in the limelight made it incredibly difficult to do both, and even when he tried his hardest to stay true to himself there were people waiting to see him fail.

My one complaint is that Montage Of Heck doesn’t do much to connect Kurt’s childhood and the things that happened to him during that time with what occurs later in his life. That’s not to say such connections could not be inferred from the material presented, but it would have been nice if Morgen worked a bit harder to create a fluid narrative for the film. It still works, often far better than any other music documentary in recent memory, but you can’t help feeling it should build to something that never really develops.

It’s a little crazy to think about just how much we know of Kurt Cobain’s life and work already, but it’s even crazier to watch Montage Of Heck and realize there is still so much that remains a mystery. Historians and critics may try to tell us how various events in Cobain’s life fueled the material he would create with Nirvana, but at the end of the day those discussions are far more theory and hypothesis than scientific fact. What we do know to be true is that no one in the history of entertainment saw the world the way Cobain did, but with Montage Of Heck Brett Morgen has found a way to help the rest of us see things from Kurt’s perspective.


Review written by James Shotwell

James Shotwell

James Shotwell is the founder of Under The Gun Review. He loves writing about music and movies almost as much as he loves his two fat cats. He's also the co-founder of Antique Records and the Marketing Coordinator for Haulix. You should probably follow him on Twitter.

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