Brett Morgen’s Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck is shaping up to be one of the year’s biggest music documentaries, and last night the film finally made its New York premiere at the Tribeca Film Fest. With it came Courtney Love. In a candid conversation following the film, Love, Morgen, and Rolling Stone contributing editor Neil Strauss discussed the film’s unprecedented access, unconventional use of mixed media from Cobain’s personal archives, and intimacy… in the form of a long-lost Kurt and Courtney sex tape the couple tried to record over.
What remained by the time Morgen got his hands on Love’s untouched storage units were a few frames that show the two aggressively making out. It’s not even the most private moment in Montage of Heck — that honor goes to Courtney flashing her breasts in a towel, complaining that she couldn’t play Reading Festival because she was pregnant with Frances Bean — but it does capture the couple’s chemistry in action.
“Somehow Brett found the sex tape,” Love joked. “Everyone makes one sex tape once in their lives.”
Of course, this footage is a blip when you consider the feat Montage of Heck achieves: telling the story of Kurt Cobain with as little mythology as is possible at this point, and as much unseen footage as the world is likely to get. (Read Flavorwire film editor Jason Bailey’s review of the doc from Sundance.) Morgen has made docs on famous folks before, including legendary Paramount producer Robert Evans (The Kid Stays in the Picture) and the Rolling Stones (Crossfire Hurricane), but he described Montage of Heck as his first film that he could personally relate to, deeming it “the first Gen-X documentary.” He worked on the movie for eight years, rummaging through hundreds of hours of previously unheard audio and video recorded by and/or of Cobain, plus thousands of pages of Kurt’s journals and drawings (brought to life through twisted, meticulous animation).
“It’s beautiful because I got to spend more time with Kurt,” a teary-eyed Love said of watching the film, now for the fourth time, with a twinge of shame. “I wanted someone to tell the truth,” she later added, while Morgen described her hands-off approach to total access as “the greatest thing anyone’s given me as a filmmaker.”
Morgen and Love couldn’t praise each other enough, but that doesn’t mean the conversation wasn’t without real talk. A few illuminating and surprising points from last night’s post-premiere conversation:
Dave Grohl is not in the movie because Morgen’s interview with him took place two weeks before the film’s Sundance premiere, and didn’t add anything he felt was crucial.
When Morgen requested an interview with Nirvana’s Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl, he was asked to wait to interview Grohl, who at the time was recording and promoting a new Foo Fighters album (last year’s Sonic Highways). He completed the interview, but the footage didn’t make the cut in time for Montage of Heck‘s earliest festival premieres.
“I went back after Berlin [Film Fest] to try to cut it in, and in the interim I had lost the thing when you’re making a movie and your heartbeat is one with the movie,” Morgen said. “Not to sound cheesy, but when you’re totally connected to watch your movie four times a day… I couldn’t do that anymore.”
Morgen added: “If there was something [Grohl said that Morgen wanted in], I would have changed the movie.” He wanted the film to be intimate instead of a collection of talking heads, citing Bob Fosse’s primal Lenny Bruce film as a source of inspiration.
Montage of Heck would not have happened without Frances Bean Cobain’s involvement.
Morgen said he made the film so that Frances, now 22 but not even three when Cobain took his life in 1995, could know her father. Upon seeing the film for the first time, Morgen said that Frances thanked him for “giving her a couple hours with [her] father that [she] never had.” But it’s Morgen who should be thanking her. Without Frances involved, Kurt’s mother Wendy O’Connor and father Donald Cobain, neither of whom had ever agreed before to appear on camera to discuss Kurt, would not have taken part in Montage of Heck. They kept checking in to make sure Frances was on board with Morgen’s plan.
Some of the most intimate at-home footage of Kurt and Courtney together was filmed by her Hole bandmate and ex-boyfriend Eric Erlandson.
“Eric would come over to our house and he would shoot really intimate stuff of me and Kurt,” Love said.
Morgen admitted that even he doesn’t totally understand the trio’s dynamic: “If you two are together and I’m Eric, the ex-boyfriend, my thought would be that [Kurt] would be possessive, or that he’d not want to make [Eric] uncomfortable. Kurt was neither.”
To which Love said, “That’s just the way Eric is. Let’s move on.”
Kurt’s mysterious stomach issues were not taken seriously by his management, nor were they treated to the level they should have been.
One aspect of Cobain’s life that has remained shrouded in some mystery to the public: his ongoing stomach pain. Montage of Heck doesn’t gloss over this, but it was Courtney’s answer to a fan question that really explained how debilitating it was for Cobain. (Kurt’s mother also suffers from similar issues.)
“We had really nascent, young management around us at the time,” she said. “They were really irresponsible. I don’t think they meant to be, but they were. I think he should have been taken to the Mayo Clinic, but we did have Cedars-Sinai [the LA hospital] available to us, so he went there a few times for Crohn’s Disease, endoscopies, a biopsy.”