Sundance 2015: ‘Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck’ Is a Harrowing, Intimate Portrait

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PARK CITY, UT: Buried deep in the private journals, audio diaries, and home movies that comprise the bulk of Brett Morgen’s remarkable documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck are these instructions: “Look through my things and figure me out.” It’s a simple imperative that Morgen clearly took as his mission statement, crafting a bio-doc that eschews the usual conventions in favor of something a good deal more experimental and impressionistic. “This is not Nirvana: Behind the Music,” director Morgen warned the Sundance Film Festival audience Monday morning. “My films are meant to be experiences.”

That it is. Morgen’s previous pictures — particularly his Rolling Stones documentary Crossfire Hurricane and the single best 30 for 30 episode ever, “June 17, 1994” — are unique for their placement in the present tense. He rarely uses talking head interviews or voice-over narration or other distancing devices; he assembles existing materials and reappropriates them to retell stories, in a way, as they’re happening.

This time, he has to use a few close family and friends to fill in some gaps (Cobain didn’t leave a wealth of interview material), but his primary objective is to approximate what Cobain’s life was, for Cobain. It’s a rare profile that’s about the person instead of the personality, the artist instead of the art. Using Cobain’s drawings and journals (frequently brought to life via vivid animation) and his home tapes and montages (aural burps and farts and rough demos and TV samples), he creates something altogether unexpected: a legitimately subjective viewing experience.

Director Brett Morgen at the Sundance screening of “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck.” Photo credit: Jason Bailey / Flavorwire

By visualizing and dramatizing his subject’s mindscape, Morgen takes a crisp snapshot of how intense Cobain’s alienation and anxiety was in his formative years — and how music captured those feelings, and helped him express them. We see the formulation of a personality, a voice, and a style.

Once the rise to fame begins, Morgen continues to surprise. He barely tells us how the band formed, much less how they got so big so fast. He doesn’t splice in the iconic “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video, which he knows we’ve all seen a million times; he shows outtakes from the shoot, and scores it with a haunting, choral cover. He’s not as interested in documenting the band’s first big tour as he is in the astonishingly intimate footage of Kurt and Courtney Love in the months they spent together after that tour, in isolation, hanging out and doing heroin. And when the end comes, we don’t get the obligatory series of teary remembrances (to “make you guys feel better, right?” according to Morgen), but a hard cut to black, and a roll of the credits.

In other words, it’s a biography told from the inside out, rather than the other way around — we experience these moments as Cobain did, and within his context, rather than that of the world at large. As his paranoia increases and his drug abuse gets out of control, the cuts and music cues get more jarring, and the imagery becomes more nightmarish. Morgen’s style may not allow him to address the central question of how we should feel about the daughter he left behind, but he powerfully juxtaposes video of Kurt and his baby with the home movies of Kurt himself at that age. Those images, paired together, speak volumes.

Director Brett Morgen at the Sundance screening of “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck.” Photo credit: Jason Bailey / Flavorwire

“He just wanted to have a family,” Morgen told the Sundance audience Monday, welling up a bit. “I think the perception of Kurt, for all these years, has been so off — this whiny, white male, he didn’t like fame — it’s so simple. I think the reality of Kurt’s life is he was chasing those first three years [of his life].”

One of the most jarring moments comes when we see Krist Novoselic, now balding and pudgy and looking less like a member of one of the most important bands of all time than your goofy uncle. It’s been so long now, over 20 years since Cobain’s suicide. Soon, he’ll have been gone as long as he was here. Filmmakers, profilers, and authors have tried to get their arms around Cobain’s life, with little luck; Morgen may have finally done it, by considering the life as simply and directly as possible.

“We were making a film for Kurt,” the filmmaker said Monday. “And I was making it for Frances… I think it’s important for Frances, and for the public, to stop deifying him. And if you’re gonna wear a Kurt Cobain image on your shirt, know what that represents. And I hope if you wore a Kurt Cobain image on your shirt before today, that you’ll wanna wear it even more after seeing the film, having a better sense of who he was. Because he was awesome.”

Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck screens this week at the Sundance Film Festival. It will premiere on HBO in May.