Watch the Tunes: Montage of Heck

On December 16, 2016

There is an absurdly vast selection of music movies and documentaries available on Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, and on and on and on. But it’s hard to tell which ones are actually worth your 100 minutes. Watch the Tunes will help you pick what music doc is worth your time every weekend. This week’s edition covers Montage of Heck, a documentary about Kurt Cobain, which is streaming over on HBO.

Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York album opens with Kurt Cobain infamously introducing the song "About a Girl" with the line “This is a song off our first record... Most people don’t own it...” It’s a playful elbow to the ribs for the bandwagon jumping posers who only came on board with the massive success of Nevermind, but in truth we were all relative latecomers to Kurt Cobain’s life. Or at least that’s what last year’s remarkable documentary Cobain: Montage of Heck would have you believe.

With heartfelt lyrics that spoke to alienation, self-doubt, and frustration, delivered with a frenetic punk rock energy, Cobain became the unwilling “voice of a generation” that was just coming out of the bleach blonde bouffant corporate rock stone age also known as the nineteen eighties. He was mischievously funny, quietly charming, and his self-destructive dives into drum-kits and audience alike marked him as dangerous. The roots of all these personality traits, we find, go back to a deeply unsatisfactory childhood where he was bounced between parents who were incapable of connecting to him emotionally, when he wasn’t trying their patience and getting on their last nerve with his restlessly creative energy that is. These adolescent rejections would result in a lifelong fear of anything resembling humiliation or embarrassment, a point that pretty much every interview subject notably brings up at some point or other.

Director Brett Morgen, whose general documentary aesthetic is to gather up as much pertinent visual stimulus as he can get his hands on and repackage it, was a brilliant choice to tackle Cobain’s story. With The Kid Stays in the Picture in 2002, Morgen (and co-director Nanette Burstein) basically raided the Paramount Studios vaults for visuals to cut up and splice into place underneath the audio of legendary movie producer Robert Evans reading his memoir. Morgen’s entry into ESPN’s 30 for 30 canon, June 17th, 1994, was composed solely of television footage and archival b-roll relevant to O.J. Simpson’s legendarily wild ride around Los Angeles in that white Ford Bronco. Both of these are stunning and uniquely impressionistic documentary experiences, as is Montage of Heck, but their functional ability to be revealing is ultimately finite and, in the case of Kurt, even more so.

It’s truly frustrating to hear all these first hand accounts from the people closest to Kurt throughout his life, his family, bandmates, and widow, presented alongside an artfully edited collection of never before seen home movies, and somehow still walk away feeling like you’re not remotely closer to grasping Kurt as a person than you were before you pressed play. After all these incredibly intimate moments it’s like we get to see just another side of an unsolved Rubik's Cube rather than get sort of clarity. Maybe that’s my own fault, though, for treating Cobain’s life as a riddle to be solved. He was a deeply fragile and complex person even before he discovered dope, which did nothing to straighten him out and, as we covered a few months back, it was ultimately that combination of emotional instability, stress, and addiction that killed him, despite what some conspiracy theorists might have you believe.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring up some of the complaints that have been leveled against Montage of Heck, namely that Cobain’s childhood pal King Buzzo says that roughly ninety percent of the film is “total bullshit.” There’s a whole chunk dedicated to Kurt laying out the story of how he lost his virginity to an overweight and intellectually disabled woman that, on reflection, fails to pass any sort of journalistic credibility, calling into doubt the filmmakers having done their due diligence by way of checking out the stories that Cobain told. “That’s the one thing no one gets about Cobain...” Buzzo continued, “...he was a master of jerking your chain.” Maybe some day we’ll get an objective investigative look at Cobain, but despite a ton of primary sources, Montage, with its gentle soundtrack of lullaby Nirvana covers, resolves itself to poetically tug at your heartstrings more than concretely inform. I say all this not necessarily as a knock to the documentary (Krist Novoselic casually shrugged off Buzz’s comments for whatever that’s worth), but more just as a heads up to the lens through which it should be viewed.

I don’t know what it is about dying at the age of 27 that seems to preserve certain artists in amber, capturing them in a moment when their vitality was peaking. Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones, Jim Morrison, Robert Johnson, Janis Joplin, D. Boon, Chris Bell, and so on and so on. They all clearly made their own indelible marks on pop culture, but in a sense they were all still kids that had so much more maturing to do. It’s the same with Kurt, who just maybe needed a few more years to get his own shit together, at which point he might have followed in the footsteps of Pearl Jam and R.E.M., similarly famous bands from that era who both founds ways to functionally ease the music industry pressures without losing artistic credibility. Or maybe with the right meds he would have kicked dope and leaned into stardom and blessed a Super Bowl halftime show with “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Sadly, since we were robbed of seeing his future, we’re left unearthing his past, and Montage Of Heck gets the complexities of Kurt’s barbaric yawp of a life right even if it takes some poetic liberties in overall presentation.

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Chris Lay

Chris Lay is a freelance writer, archivist, and record store clerk living in Madison, WI. The very first CD he bought for himself was the Dumb & Dumber soundtrack when he was twelve and things only got better from there.

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