During one of the hallucinatory animated sequences of Montage of Heck, the camera enters through Kurt Cobain’s eyes and zooms in on his blood cells, then his sperm. It’s a fitting metaphor for the Cobain biographical industry and especially for this particular project, which skims lightly over the familiar chronology and approaches its subject on an ostensibly more intimate level, via his journals, drawings and tapes. When we harass the dead so relentlessly for so many years, it starts to look like we’re really just angling for their DNA, desperate to grab its code and engineer a resurrection. Instead, we end up rehashing the story of their life, fascinated by impending tragedy and vaguely hoping it will turn out different this time.
Film Society of Minneapolis St Paul
Director: Brett Morgen
Producers: Brett Morgen, Danielle Renfrew Behrens
Writer: Brett Morgen
Cinematographers: Eric Edwards, Jim Whitaker, Nicole Hirsch Whitaker
Editor: Joe Beshenkovsky, Brett Morgen
Premiere: January 24, 2015 – Sundance
US Theatrical Release: April 24, 2015
US Distributor: HBO Documentary Films
Spoiler: It doesn’t. The major shortcoming of Montage of Heck is its inability to lose the shadow of death and find any reserve of humor or levity in Cobain’s life. Every single moment of his 27 years becomes a warning sign. But what if he hadn’t died? What becomes of these warning signs? It’s a question that the film is too busy to ever answer, trawling through his journals for relevant phrases, animating his drawings and artwork, visualizing lost scenes from his life, blasting his homemade sound collages, rushing toward the end. The film purports to be a raw feed, straight from Cobain himself, so it conveniently avoids questions of veracity. His journals speak a higher truth about his life, the film argues.
Director Brett Morgen takes advantage of this fact and hopes the viewer won’t notice how deliberately he’s shaped the material. His film is the product of more editorializing and emotional leading than the standard Hollywood biopic. Did Cobain really suffer from chronic stomach pain? Was his entrance at the Reading Festival, via wheelchair, a cry for help, not just a great moment of theater? Was his extreme sensitivity to ridicule and betrayal the thing that finally killed him? Was pain the wellspring of all his creative work? The film never gives the viewer enough space to imagine an answer that isn’t yes, or to imagine that the answers aren’t some kind of magic key that will allow him to live again.
Letting Cobain absently narrate via his journals might read as an attempt to demystify his life and unpack long-standing myths, but ultimately the approach only compounds these things. Amy is another recent documentary in which the filmmakers attempt to meaningfully circumscribe their access to the subject, in this case narrating the life of Amy Winehouse largely via paparazzi footage. It’s a powerful and intensely uncomfortable approach, simultaneously serving as an empathetic device and an interrogation of the viewer. Montage of Heck, insofar as it suggests a historiographical idea, is less successful. The home movies of Cobain and Courtney Love, at the height of their shared heroin addiction, accomplish little more than disappointing the audience’s demand that fame and art correspond to a fascinating private life. Morgen, identifying a performative aspect in the home movies, imagines them as being intended for public consumption, but what do they reveal?
Cobain’s journals are scarcely more illuminating. Anyone who’s ever used a journal knows it can serve as a repository for the very things a person refuses to be haunted by. Which is to say, the film attempts to sift significance from a mountain of artifacts that could very well be meaningless, artifacts that are done speaking. With its gallery of prescient magazine headlines and clueless interviewers declaring Cobain the disaffected voice of a generation, Montage of Heck at times re-creates the oppressive media atmosphere that constantly undermined him. But unlike Amy, the film is wholly unable to turn the lens on anyone but Cobain himself, and unable to give him any less than overbearing scrutiny, no different than the MTV and magazine interviews we see Cobain tuning out during.
But “playing live makes it worth it,” Cobain says when asked how he endures being analyzed 24 hours a day, and the music in Montage of Heck, however much it’s undermined by the filmmaking itself, still sounds incredible. Nirvana’s songs hit with astonishing clarity, purposeful energy, fun. After a haunting, trancelike stretch of animation and glimpses of Cobain’s fragmented, suicidal scrawl, it’s almost a shock to snap back to something as vital as the music, certain proof that Montage of Heck is far from attuned to its subject. The film is never farther from its source than when a funereal choral arrangement of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” accompanies images from Nirvana’s breakout music video, sapping all the fun. Granted, Montage of Heck hasn’t necessarily been made for those who don’t already understand why Nevermind had the impact that it did, but the choice reads like a gross distortion of the original material and a tone-deaf misread of the times, bent to Morgen’s private vision of the truth. A younger viewer might wonder how anyone could bear living through such a dreary era.
But however much I object to Montage of Heck’s methods and question its usefulness, I have to admit it makes for hypnotic viewing. I found it hard to resist at times. It transmits through the very ether I was born into, and the world it depicts was already on a loop in my brain as far back as I can remember. If nothing else, Montage of Heck might be an experience powerful enough to put a cap on these kinds of projects and demand a fresh, less fateful take next time. But part of me hopes there isn’t a next time. The dead can only give so much, and Cobain already left behind a major body of work. Just as we shouldn’t expect James Baldwin to continue performing intellectual work we’re not prepared to undertake ourselves, we shouldn’t keep holding Kurt Cobain in suspended reanimation while we search for answers that don’t exist.