“Montage of Heck” humanizes Kurt Cobain through never-before-seen footage

Charles Liu and Chris Duncan

Twenty-one years after his death, Kurt Cobain’s music still resonates with audiences. On Monday, HBO premiered “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck,” the only documentary about Kurt Cobain made with the cooperation of his family. Cobain’s widow, Courtney Love, first approached director Brett Morgen about the project in 2007.

During the film’s production, the Cobain family provided Morgen with Cobain’s unreleased recordings and home videos. The result is a thoughtful journey through Cobain’s life, taking audiences from his childhood to his years as the front man for Nirvana.

Through Cobain’s home videos, Morgen tracks his transformation from a cheerful, exuberant child into a tormented musician battling drug addiction and insecurities. The two bright spots of his life were his wife, Love, and his infant daughter, Frances. Audiences see Cobain’s genuine self, not his onstage persona — Morgen gives us the man, not the artist. Morgen amplifies the tragedy of Cobain’s suicide by shedding light on his too-short life.

“Montage of Heck” features Morgen’s interviews with Cobain’s parents, his sister, former Nirvana member Krist Novoselic and Love. Their anecdotes reveal that Cobain wanted to build and sustain a family to make up for the failings of his own parents. Behind the apathetic image Cobain built for himself, he was a man who deeply cared about having people who loved him.

Morgen also gives snippets of Cobain’s many doodles and journal entries, allowing unfiltered, intimate access into his thoughts. Cobain’s hopes, dreams and demons become most visible during the scenes in which his handwriting fills the screen and his grotesque drawings of monsters and corpses are crudely animated.

As time passes, his journal entries shift from planning his band to expressing his anger at the press for humiliating him and his family. Cobain’s regression climaxes when Morgen shows us a wall of text which repeats “kill yourself.”    

The film plays archived recordings of Cobain’s interviews about his life, accompanied by Morgen’s hand-drawn animations. Those scenes are some of the film’s most effective: They capture Cobain’s loneliness after his parents’ divorce when he was 7 and his frustration with virginity as a teen. Instead of merely hearing about Cobain’s rebelliousness and his delinquent behavior, audiences get to see a boy struggling to make sense of his life.

At the same time, these animations are also used to show small moments of joy. One animated sequence includes Cobain’s unedited home demo of “Been a Son.” The scene demonstrates the happiness he found in songwriting and depicts him answering the phone mid-take, emphasizing how raw the documentary is when using Cobain’s personal recordings and writings.

Background music plays a crucial role in creating the tone of the film. During its coverage of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the movie features a children’s choir’s performance, creating a melancholy moment. Of all the songs in the documentary, Cobain’s cover of The Beatles’ “And I Love Her” is the most heart-wrenching. The song’s agony captures Cobain’s battle with fame and drugs.    

“Montage of Heck” spends too much time on Nirvana’s live concerts, which could’ve been cut in favor of footage from Cobain’s childhood. Nirvana’s performance of “Territorial Pissings” at the Reading Festival in 1992 shows an immobile Cobain, contrasting with his more jubilant style pre-Nevermind.

At the end of the performance, Kurt lashes out, ramming his guitar and knocking over the on-stage amplifiers. Although this moment reveals Kurt’s state of mind, more exclusive footage of Cobain and his family would have worked better in establishing his depression.

“Montage of Heck” is an insightful documentary that explores Cobain’s humanity with never-before-seen footage and rare interviews with his family. Morgen avoids eulogizing Cobain, presenting his strengths and flaws in equal measure. We leave the film not quite sure about what Cobain the artist was trying to say, but we do leave understanding the man.

Title: “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck”

Score: 9/10

MPAA rating: Unrated

Running time: 132 minutes