Twenty-one years after he committed suicide, Kurt Cobain remains an enigma. Why did he kill himself at the age of 27? Was it the heroin addiction? The stomach pains? Was it undiagnosed clinical depression? Did Courtney Love have him murdered? If Montage of Heck, the first documentary about Nirvana made the with the full cooperation of Cobain’s family, provides no answers, it does let us watch his self-destruction, almost in real time.
In the early 1990s, Cobain, a talented if unpolished songwriter, burst out of nowhere to become the “voice of his generation.”
That’s the popular narrative anyway. The reality is a bit more complex. All through the 1980s, an “alternative” musical culture existed alongside MTV and the mainstream. There were zines, college radio stations, and well known “underground” bands like Sonic Youth and REM. There were “independent” record companies. In the early late 80s, MTV’s standard rotation — Madonna, Michael Jackson, elaborately produced music videos, and British New Wave bands with elaborately produced hairstyles– had grown stale. It was time for the corporate music industry to raid the world of alternative rock in a big way. The prize catch turned out to be Nirvana, who had previously recorded the promising, if hardly earth-shattering, “Bleach” on Sub Pop, the Seattle-based independent record label, in 1989. Nevermind, perhaps the last great hard rock album ever recorded, was released in 1991. Almost overnight, sensitive young men in torn flannel shirts were all the rage. Seattle, the hipster Brooklyn of the 1990s, became the epicenter of punk rock. Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, and Soundgarden replaced Motley Crue, Poison, and Ratt. Hollywood films like Reality Bites and Singles awkwardly tried to capture the “grunge” aesthetic.
Tucker Max says that “the devil doesn’t come dressed in a red cape and pointy horns. He comes as everything you’ve ever wished for.” For Kurt Cobain, jumping from Sub Pop to Geffen Records brought fame, fortune, a big Victorian house along Lake Washington, and the last laugh at everyone who bullied him in high-school. But it didn’t make him happy. Indeed, one of the strongest points of Montage of Heck is the way it shows how Kurt Cobain genuinely didn’t care about money. He wasn’t a poser, a wealthy rock star who ranted against materialism and conformism before getting into his BMW, and driving off to his mansion in the Hollywood hills. On the contrary, at the very height of his popularity, he stopped touring for 6 months. “All he wanted to do was stay at home, do heroin and paint,” his wife Courtney Love remarks. All of the hype around Nirvana, the ridiculous idea that he was “the voice of his generation,” clearly bothered him. Montage of Heck makes a good case that the money that came from signing with Geffen Records ripped Cobain out of the isolation he needed to create, and would have probably stunted him as an artist had he not died so young.
If Montage of Heck is a difficult movie to get through – it’s well over 2 hours – I think that’s part of the point. Twenty-seven is a terribly young age to die, but Kurt Cobain felt every one of those years like a crushing weight on his back. We meet his mother, Wendy O’Connor. We’re introduced to Aberdeen, the small, coastal town in Washington State where Cobain, a gifted, unhappy, teenager grew up. Kurt Cobain was an early “male feminist,” and Montage of Heck was made with the cooperation of Wendy O’Connor and Courtney Love, but the women in his life come off badly. Wendy O’Connor, an intelligent, but still bitter, angry woman, obviously despises her ineffectual, working-class husband, Don Cobain, and can’t hide how she took it out on her son. Courtney Love, now 50 years old, and a victim of too much plastic surgery, could easily be O’Connor’s twin sister. You can’t watch Montage of Heck without coming away with the impression that Kurt Cobain married his mother, that he never quite established himself as an adult, that once the money from Nevermind and In Utero made it possible for him to get all the heroin he wanted it was only a matter of time before he either overdosed or blew his brains out. The last hour of Montage of Heck is so harrowing – mostly home movies of Cobain and Love, clearly unfit parents, wasted out of their minds in front of their infant daughter – that you wonder how Nirvana ever became as good as it was. Cobain comes off like an undisciplined, childish, boring jerk, Love much worse.
Tracy Marander, Cobain’s first girlfriend, gives us a hint about what he was like as a creative artist. He would sit for hours doing nothing, she explains, then knock off a painting or write a song all at once. Cobain was limited as a songwriter, but what he did, he did well, give a voice to the anguish and rage of an abused child, he did with genuine originality, even genius. What made him so vulnerable to drug addiction and mental illness also made it possible for him to write his music. As long as he was a child, dependent on parents, step-parents, and adults who neglected him, and shuffled him around like an unwanted burden, he had to create to survive, to build a room in his imagination where he could shut the door behind him. Cobain’s journals, and artwork, are rough, unpolished, yet refreshingly honest and straightforward. The memories of an abortive attempt to lose his virginity with a mentally challenged woman he and his friends stole beer from, and the guilt that led to his first suicide attempt, come together like a first rate short story. Cobain, even as a teenager, expresses himself so clearly and so directly that his band mate Krist Novoselic seems baffled about how he could have missed all of the obvious warning signs.
Just about the only thing I wanted to see more of in Montage of Heck was an explanation of how Cobain managed to pull himself together to stage his remarkable performance on MTV’s “Live Unplugged.” Somehow the young man who, in his wife’s home movies seems too sick and weak even to sit up straight, not only performed Nirvana’s greatest hits, but made Ledbelly’s Where Did You Sleep Last Night and David Bowie’s The Man Who Sold The World his own. David Grohl, Nirvana’s drummer, is very conspicuously absent from the whole movie. Apparently, he and Courtney Love still hate each other. Montage of Heck could have used his input, as well as input from Danny Goldberg, Steve Albini, and Butch Vig. I wanted to see Cobain, Novoselic, and Grohl at rehearsal, in the studio, arguing about how they would stage the concert. I wanted to see their creative process in action, to see Cobain make one final effort to pull himself together before he snuffed out his own life for good. It might have provided some additional insight as to why, in April of 1994, he put a shotgun in his mouth and blew his brains out. Sadly, as good as Montage of Heck can be, Cobain’s suicide remains as much of an enigma as it’s always been.