With the new Star Wars fast upon us, get ready for the “I remember my experience first seeing Star Wars when I was a wee lad and my eyes were open to wonder …” kind of commentary. I get it, I do, but with something like Star Wars, having a blown-away experience as a child to that film is not, how you say, unique. However, I really do get it. And here is my entry in the “This film brought up all kinds of memories, and here is what it means to me personally” brand of response.
Brett Morgen’s Cobain: The Montage of Heck was devastating. It had an irrevocable feeling to it, because we all know the ending, and yet it was devoted to the small details, the paraphernalia of life, the notebooks, the home movies, the home recordings, the complex tapestry (literally – all the threads interlocking) of life. Kurt Cobain seems real, not an easy thing when someone dies young, and in such a way as Cobain did. The Myth then takes over The Man. Montage of Heck is not part of a myth-making push. It’s not a re-examination, it’s not a salacious pulling a man down off his pedestal. It’s honest, it’s painful, and it has a style that helps the audience go deeper into the psyche of the main subject. It’s not distant in its approach. Montage of Heck is one of the best documentaries of the year (and this has been a great year already for both music biopics – Love & Mercy and Straight Outta Compton in the same year? and documentaries, with What Happened, Miss Simone and Amy both powerful entries as well). Brett Morgen’s mellow collage-effect in The Kid Stays in the Picture was one of that documentary’s most memorable aspects – and it helped tell the story RIGHT, as well as using Robert Evans’ voice as narration. Maybe Evans is an unreliable narrator. Who cares: aren’t we all. It was Evans’ style in telling his story that made that book what it was, and Morgen hews close to the original. In Montage of Heck, Morgen uses a similar strategy: it’s made up of unforgettable collage, extant footage, touching home movies (from Cobain’s childhood, from his early Nirvana tours, from his marriage to Courtney Love) but also animation (Cobain’s journals coming to life in freaky little cartoons), and animated sequences showing Cobain recording himself in his home, or appearing on local radio stations, or the infamous raging telephone message he left to a journalist.
There are talking-heads included: Cobain’s mother and sister, his father, his first girlfriend Tracy, Courtney Love, Krist Novoselic … but the talking-heads are all friends/family members. There are no critics weighing in on the importance of Cobain’s song-writing or execs at Geffen or SubPop providing “context” to what Nirvana unleashed (a smart move, because we all already KNOW all that), or music journalists reminiscing about what it was like to hear “Smells like Teen Spirit” for the first time, and blah blah blah. There is none of that here. The documentary is not a critical assessment of Nirvana’s place in music history. It is a “montage of heck,” the name Cobain scribbled on a mix tape he made when he was a teenager.
Without any voiceover narration, or sign-posts, you get the gist of the journey: the troubled childhood and chaotic family, obsession with music and punk rock, the start of Nirvana, the little shows, the Sub Pop moment, the bigger tours, and then the explosion of Nevermind – but you get it all through sensitive collage-aspects (Cobain’s scribbles in his journal: “GEFFEN.” Or a flier from SubPop. Moving us to the next phase.)
His friends and family speak only to the man they knew, not the icon everyone knew. Kriss Novoselic: “Kurt hated being humiliated. If he felt humiliated, you’d see the rage come out. Me? You can humiliate me. I humiliate myself. But not Kurt. Never Kurt.”
Courtney Love (whose interview is great): “Kurt had no idea he was as good-looking as Brad Pitt.” Cobain’s mother describes Kurt popping in the master tape of Nevermind, before the album was released. She says that within moments she felt – “not pride … but fear. Fear. Because I knew this record was going to be HUGE. And my thought was, ‘Buckle up. Are you ready for what’s coming?'” Everyone comes off as honest.
Love is honest about the “drug addicts doing drugs” aspect of their relationship, but also speaks of how these two misfits really were devoted to creating a home life, family life: “I am telling you right now, I would have had more babies with him.”
There is a closeup of Cobain’s father as his wife speaks that is so filled with silent pain you want to look away. Nothing detracts from the purely subjective focus of Montage of Heck. It is a personal film. You are in Cobain’s head. You see what life felt like to him. The people interviewed still feel the loss. There were multiple times when I started feeling a sense of dread, because I knew how the story ended. You could see it coming so clearly. There’s a reason why his mother has been quoted as saying she was not surprised her son took his life. She had had a feeling that that might have been in the cards for him since he was a teenager.
The home video footage of he and Courtney at home, playing with Frances, is heart-rending, because the tenderness they both feel, these two messy kids who just had a kid, is so real. Courtney sits in a bathtub with Frances, washing Frances’ hair, as Kurt films. They’re babbling about nothing stuff to each other, focused on Frances’ cute shenanigans, and suddenly Courtney looks up at the camera and says, “You know what? I’m really happy right now.” And she looks it. And Cobain sounds happy too. It’s a gut-punch, the whole damn thing.
Now for my Nostalgic Section
I remember where I was, what I was doing, who I was with, when I heard the news. And I’m sure I was wearing a little ripped baby-doll nightie, ripped thick tights, and a purple plastic barrette and Doc Martens, because I was fully IN the movement of the moment. You know … every photo of me in the mid-90s involves fingerless gloves, plastic barrettes, combat boots, and bright red lipstick. Sometimes, rarely, what is “fashionable” also happens to be exactly what SUITS you, not so much physically, but emotionally. The grunge era/riot grrl thing – including all its ferocious music – was that for me. That was who I WAS.
I had already been that in high school, but the style at the time was preppy (layered sweaters, dock siders, whale logos, etc.) or, then, Madonna-ish leg warmers and rubber bracelets. Neither of these styles had anything to do with my spirit, which is why I dressed in high school as though it was 1954: I wore my dad’s shirts, black pedal pushers, and little ballet flats, and I put a red scarf around my neck. My clothes came from thrift stores. I was proud of that. It was my little rebellion against conformity. I listened to Devo and the Go Gos and Adam Ant, but I also loved The Beatles and The Rolling Stones and The Sex Pistols and The Clash. The 80s were a tough time for diversity of tastes, at least in terms of what got a “stamp of approval.”
But then the early-mid 90s came, and something else, another sound, another energy, came roaring out of the Pacific Northwest. It burst apart all that came before it. The culture had been pinpricked, somehow, and artifice came crashing down. (Which was part of the problem … because, naturally, it then immediately started being corporatized.) To quote Cobain: Whatever. Never mind. This is all well-trod ground.
Kurt Cobain killing himself was a “moment” for us Gen-Xers. And Millennials, I realize how annoying it is to have op-ed pieces written about how much your generation sucks, but you shoulda been there back in 1992, 93, 94, 95. We were the worst generation ever. We were awful dirty un-grateful assholes, all of us, according to … everyone. And Nirvana was a flash-point for all of these worried columns: We were a generation who had so little taste that we idolized this pimply whiny “passive” punk. (A lot of the criticism at the time had a distinctly homophobic slant to it: Cobain was not enough of a MAN. Suck it up, boy, stop whining, be a real man, and etc. Which makes me wonder if they had ever listened to Nirvana’s music. Whining? You call “Lithium” whining? “Smells Like Teen Spirit” whining? “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle” whining? What I hear there is a “real man” present to his own feelings, his rage, his openness, the unfairness of life … and if you call that “whining” then you’d better throw Shakespeare on that heap too. King Lear, man. What a whiner.) We were made fun of when we cried at news of his death. It all felt like a calculated attack on us, the very thing that Nirvana had been raging against, and speaking TO. Just like Eminem went over the heads of his critics and mainlined into his audiences his concerns/hopes/fears … Nirvana skipped the ingratiating press-run stage of a career, and went straight to the audience. You cannot manufacture fan identification like that, although millions in R&D money is devoted to trying. Nirvana was US and people were VICIOUS in making fun of us for it. So Millennials, here’s the deal: I am friends with many of you, have worked with many of you, and I do not recognize the caricature being put out there in these dumb op-ed columns about you. Maybe there are some assholes among you, people whose parents are overly involved in their lives, who freak out when their every banal thought isn’t praised to high heaven. Sure. Your generation got way more praise when you were kids than our generation ever did, than most other generations ever did, actually. But there are assholes in every generation, for God’s sake, and some of the biggest assholes I know are Baby Boomers, who think they invented good sex, political activism and cool music. If all you knew of Millennials was what you saw on Tumblr, you would literally tremble for the future. These people sound certifiably insane and DEVOTED to their sense of victimization. I know the whole “You just love to be a victim” thing is used as a battering-ram against people with legitimate complaints, but there ARE people who cherish their special-snowflake status and tremble at any perceived threat to their special-ness and sensitivity. But out in the real world, of course, on a one-to-one basis it’s not quite like that. I also feel protective of Millennials in a way, because my generation went through a similar period where everyone was talking about how much we SUCKED. I never thought we sucked. I am proud of my generation. We are tough, gritty, self-sufficient, practical. We do shit for ourselves. Many of us were born before man walked on the moon. The Internet did not come along until we were in our mid-20s. We had to occupy ourselves. We did not wear seat belts or bike helmets. Dodgeball was not banned. My kindergarten teacher tied a string around a loose tooth in my mouth, attached the string to the door knob of the classroom, and yanked the door shut. Out came the tooth. It was HORRIFYING, but here I am today, with a funny story to tell. Our teenage years were dominated by pop culture so sanitized, on such a corporate model, that – as my brother put it – “You couldn’t feel any air in the music.” Just as we reached sexual maturity, AIDS hit. So yes, we were alienated. Yes, we were pissed.
Nirvana voiced something important about all of that. Nirvana was not interested in being ingratiating. We loved them for that. They tried, how they tried, to avoid becoming a “product.” They were surly during interviews. They wanted to hear what WE thought their songs meant. It was not their job to feed it to us. They misbehaved. They were a little bit scary. I loved The Clash, I loved The Sex Pistols, the Stones, Joan Jett: rock ‘n’ roll SHOULD be a little bit scary. Rock ‘n’ roll SHOULD challenge the status quo. As much as I loved Huey Lewis, he was not challenging the status quo. It doesn’t mean he should even try – but those who change everything, those who practically single-handedly displace all that came before … who inject some AIR into the culture, some SPACE … are ALWAYS a little bit scary. Nirvana did not “play nice.” We appreciated that, we rooted for them. The gigantic swirl of corporatized magnetic energy was already sucking them in. Nirvana meant something to us. And they do still. But it’s a scar, what happened.
Watching Montage of Heck opened up that wound again. There is a “missing” in all of us, because we felt like he was ours. And he couldn’t take it and he left.
Nothing I say here is original. My experience is not unique. I do not own any of it. Every generation has a defining moment. Along with Reagan being shot, John Lennon being shot, and The Challenger explosion, Nirvana was one of ours.
Artists try to be universal and when they try they often come up with banality and cliche. Nirvana didn’t try. Cobain didn’t try. He did not give a shit about that. He wrote about his own experience and observations. And he ended up tapping into the motherlode of unexpressed rage in millions of teenagers, something that had had no place in the culture literally 2 years before.
With one punch, he created SPACE.
And when he left, that space remained. Only now it was empty.
Cobain: Montage of Heck is a superb documentary, I can’t say enough good things about it. It touched me to no end to see that Frances Bean was one of the executive producers.