In the sphere of contemporary rock music, is there a more mythical or more divisive figure than Kurt Cobain? The Nirvana frontman was, depending on who you ask, a visionary, a junkie, a prodigy, a deadbeat, a genius, a sell out or a copycat. After a well-received debut on indie label Sub Pop in 1989, Nirvana’s second album Nevermind and its juggernaut of a single “Smells Like Teen Spirit” broke through to mainstream, opening the door for alternative rock acts (even those that preceded and influenced Nirvana like Pixies and Sonic Youth) to soar up the charts.
But talking about that breakthrough nearly a quarter of a century on, the discourse surrounding it seems tired and repetitive. Sure, Nirvana paved the way for artists like PJ Harvey, but they also indirectly gave birth to Nickelback. You can argue about Nirvana’s “legacy” all you want, but Cobain himself still seems a bit of a mystery - a ghost, an enigma.
The new documentary Montage of Heck is the first official and fully-authorised portrait of Cobain. Given full access to Cobain’s visual art and home movies, director Brett Morgan has delved into the life of one of rock music’s most timelessly, tragically iconic figures. The question remains, though: will this be a raw, unflinching look at the life on an undoubtedly troubled individual, or a romanticised portrait of the man who is hero to so many?
Attempts have been made to tell his story before. Most notable is highly idiosyncratic filmmaker Gus Van Sant’s Last Days, a quiet and unsettlingly directionless film that, per its title, tells the story of the last days of a musician named Blake (played by Michael Pitt) who bears many similarities to Cobain. Even Van Sant, whose films are largely unardorned works of uncut, in-your-face realism couldn’t resist romanticising the story; in the final moments, Blake’s ghost rises out of his body and he surveys the carnage around him.
Undoubtedly, Cobain was an addict. A fuck-up. Maybe a little bit of a loser. But he was also a poet, finding a kind of worn beauty and romance in violence and carnality. He took his own life in 1994 with a gunshot that resonated through the world of music in a way reminiscent of the one that slew John Lennon in 1981. Cobain’s suicide occurred at the absolute height of Nirvana’s fame and popularity; it is fascinating contradictions like this that make his personality such an intriguing one.
Montage of Heck is a documentary not just for Nirvana devotees, but for everyone who craves to learn more about one of rock music’s biggest cliffhangers. Perhaps everything will finally become clear, or perhaps Cobain will remain a mystery. Perhaps everything there is to say has already been said, encapsulated in the small, but monumental discography that he left behind with Nirvana.
You can see Montage of Heck at Dendy’s two Sydney locations - Newtown and Circular Quay - for a limited time from May 7 to 10. Check out the Scoop Calendar for screening times.