By Laura Shields, Arts and Entertainments Editor @LauraShields86
“Hey, Hey come here, I want you to see something”: These words spoken by Kurt Cobain at the hazy opening of Cobain: Montage of Heck are the same ones which I will repeat to you as an endorsement for the film.
Montage of Heck is a biopic which focuses on the life of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain. Spearheaded by the late musician’s wife Courtney Love (who later stepped back from the creative process), Montage sees Cobain’s journals, home videos, voice recordings and music expertly pieced together into a comprehensive narrative, a montage in itself, of his life.
The film unfolds with the notorious Reading festival of 1992 at which Cobain is pushed on stage in a wheelchair donning scrubs and a long blonde wig. But the story itself doesn’t begin here. After the infectious “Stay Away” acts as a soundtrack to a plethora of American commercial style clips which flash on the screen at different points of the film, the montage truly begins.
It does so appropriately with Wendy O’Connor, Cobain’s mother. She takes us back to before Kurt was even born, recounting her marriage and life in Aberdeen, Seattle. She portrays an exciting time and happy family whom adored Kurt. Home video footage reinforces her memories as we see the young Cobain playing with guitars, drums and comically running around in a Batman costume. She portrays her son as a “busy” child, creative from a young age. Images of his early artwork, drawings of clowns and cartoon characters, are woven into the narrative.
Following his parents’ divorce however, Kurt’s life and attitudes changed. O’Connor reveals that the young boy was humiliated by the divorce causing him to act out. Later on Cobain’s friend and band mate Krist Novoselic will recount the same thing; Kurt truly hated to be humiliated and was painstaking over everything he produced in an effort to avoid embarrassment. Letters from his journals flash on screen where the singer emphasises the importance of band practice “A band needs to practice, in our opinion, at least 5 times a week if the band ever expects to accomplish anything”. With his mother’s description of him as a child coupled with Krist’s reflections and his own written works we are presented with a fully rounded human being. For many people, this is not how they had thought of Cobain before (for reasons unbeknownst to me).
Kurt has often been thought of as a contradictory figure; he wanted to be successful but when he got success, he was uncomfortable with it. Yet when we see Cobain as we do in Montage, his reactions make sense. He wants his music to be successful but he is not ready or willing to be a spokesman. In a phone call recording to a Nirvana would-be biographer he relates just this, stating that they are not interested in his band nor are they talking about his music, but his family.
Many of the narrative points of the film are familiar having read Charles R. Cross’s, “Heavier Than Heaven” including but not limited to the existence of this phone call. Yet what is so different about Montage is that, for the large part, Kurt is telling his own story on his own terms, with no intended audience. Nothing is performed nor fictionalised. His own voice recordings are paired ingeniously with animations of the stories he is telling.
Unsurprisingly, as music was such a huge part of Kurt’s life it features heavily, yet not as we might expect. We are treated to previously unheard Cobain tracks and alternative versions of well-known Nirvana songs. Lullaby versions of “All Apologies” accompany Kurt’s early years while an eerie choral version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is interjected at the point where the band take off in the music industry.
In many ways Montage presents a version of Cobain which has never been seen before; one told by himself and those closest to him rather than romanticised media portrayals. One noticeably missing voice however is that of Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl. Morgen stated that Grohl’s interviews took place too late in order to make it into the film’s Sundance Festival premiere in January. In the same interview with Billboard he stated, “I hope we’ll see a version [with the Grohl interview] some time.” It seems that time has not yet come.
As Kurt’s voice urges you to come here and see something in the opening seconds, I am urging you to listen to him. Go out and see that Kurt was a funny, creative, intelligent human being as well as a hugely influential and lauded musician. Montage is humorous, tragic, dignified, unassuming and intensely real.
Montage of Heck is showing in the QFT until April 15th. For listings click here