Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck

There is a 99% chance that any random American could guess my relationship to the band Nirvana even if they knew nothing about me except my age and my ethnicity. Nevermind came out when I was ten, right around the time I started earnestly getting into pop music, and I responded to it exactly the way you would expect me to: I totally loved it. (Actually, at first I didn't like it because it definitely wasn't like Weird Al (who was the only musician I liked at that point), but then Weird Al did a parody called "Smells Like Nirvana" and all of a sudden I was on board.  But I digress.)

In the nearly quarter of a century since Nevermind came out more and more Nirvana fans have been born, and I imagine that overall their relationship to that band is pretty similar to mine: they enjoy the cryptic/funny/angry lyrics, the loud guitars, and the plaintively screamed vocals, all of which express alienation in an exhilarating way. It was - and still is - perfect music for teenagers.

However, I can't imagine that these new fans have the same relationship to Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain as I do, because they were only exposed to him after his death had washed away a lot of the debate about his life. The Kurt Cobain they know is a Rock God and a Martyr For His Art, while I grew up with a guy who was talented but kind of a whiner. Cobain regularly complained about his own success in interviews and some of us could relate to what he was saying but many of us couldn't. At ten years old I understood the abstract concept of what was bothering him - even then I had some inkling that having to answer to tens of millions of people must be exhausting - but I also understood all of the people who thought that Cobain was being condescending every time he complained about how all of his fans were ruining his life. No one wants to work hard to be able to buy a CD or a concert ticket and then be told "get out of here, I don't want you as a fan."

I'm curious, then, what younger fans will make of Montage of Heck, a new documentary about Cobain that just debuted on HBO. The movie is startingly intimate - it is full of a lot of footage that was clearly never meant to be shown to the public, like Cobain giving his daughter her first hair cut or him goofing around with his wife Courtney Love in bed. (The documentary was produced by Cobain's daughter Frances and has interviews with almost all of his family, including his mother, father, ex-wife and so on.) A new fan might see this and think: oh wow, he was a man before he was an icon. I saw it and thought: man, Cobain was right. Fame is the drizzling shits.

In my mind Montage of Heck is basically a reductio ad absurdum argument against the idea of modern celebrity. In case you don't know that term, a reductio ad absurdum argument starts with a reasonable premise, then follows that premise to it's logical (but unpleasant) endpoint, and then it concludes that the initial premise must be flawed if it led to such a bad result. Montage of Heck starts off by introducing Kurt Cobain as a sensitive kid from a broken home, then follows him through his teenage years, where he was broke and unhappy. At this point the idea that he would pursue a career that could result in financial success and widespread adulation makes a lot of sense. 

The documentary then traces it's hero's path down the slippery slope: as the shows he plays get bigger and bigger the outside world grows more and more invasive, to the point where a Vanity Fair profile about him led to child protective services taking his daughter away. And then it ends with a depressing conclusion: twenty years after Cobain committed suicide a documentary comes along to offer up his most intimate secrets to the world. Since he committed suicide in large part because he couldn't handle the intense pressure of everyone's gaze Montage of Heck makes a particularly perverse conclusion to his story.

I think it's undeniable that airing all of that footage is incredibly invasive; the irony of HBO broadcasting footage of Cobain discussing how he unhappy he is being in the public eye is too blatant to ignore. The only debate is whether or not there's some larger artistic merit in violating a dead man's privacy like this. If you had never considered Cobain as an actual human being then the surfeit of home movie footage in Montage of Heck is defensible because it displays a raw humanity that stands in stark contrast to the iconography that has come to define his life and that extra depth is worth something. But if you're like me and you already knew Cobain as a complicated and conflicted character then it is a murkier question whether this documentary has any redeeming value. None of the footage of him in his own home acting for an audience of no one deepened my understanding of him as a person because I already understood him to be a person; I already knew that he had to shave without actually watching footage of him dragging a razor across his face. Then again, I don't want to jettison the whole movie because Montage of Heck does deepen my understanding of the forces that were driving Cobain crazy. I can barely imagine how suffocating it must have been to suddenly find yourself in a world where total strangers are interested in your home movies even when you aren't doing anything interesting in them.

It would be different with a different dead celebrity; a natural showman like (say) Elvis had a very different relationship with fame. (Which is not to say that Elvis' relationship to fame was uncomplicated, but that's a discussion for another time.) My point is that Cobain spent a lot of his time in the spotlight complaining about how harsh the spotlight was and as such it's hard not to read this documentary as proof that he was right. In his song Territorial Pissings Cobain says: just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you. Well, Montage of Heck proves that just because Cobain was aggressively pursuing a career that he knew was going to require him to give of himself to the world doesn't mean that the world wasn't too greedy in what it took from him.

Montage of Heck's unrelenting creepiness is a real shame. Of course, unrelenting creepiness is  generally shameful, but it's more regrettable than normal here because if Montage of Heck was a fiction film it would be astonishing - it is  really rare to see a film that conveys this much genuine emotion. But it isn't a fiction film, it's a documentary, and that changes everything. The fact that this all happened and that all of Cobain's pain was real makes the film almost too uncomfortable for a viewer to watch. After all, there's a reason why we've let Cobain recede into caricature - it's because that's just about the only way you can still enjoy his art without being overwhelmed with conflicted emotions.  

If director Brett Morgen and Frances Cobain wanted to make this movie to bring genuine emotion back to the idea of Kurt Cobain they succeeded, but I don't think that success will be long lived. For better or worse at Cobain will probably be forever trapped as a totem that overwrought teens will pray to when they need to feel like someone understands their unhappiness. And that isn't just because history loves to sand the rough edges off of things - although that is definitely true in this case. It's also because it's just easier to see Cobain's life from a far enough distance that we are no longer implicated for looking. 

Whether you are a new Nirvana fan or an old one you probably want to listen to listen to Cobain's music because his alienation made you feel less alone, not because you want to think about how all of us made him feel alienated. My nostalgic feelings about his music, a new fan's fresh excitement about his music and his emotional suffering are all very real emotions - but now that he's gone it makes more sense for those of us who are still here to  try to forget the bad memories his name evokes and to just focus on our own personal good experiences. Sorry, Kurt, but I have to tell myself that you knew this was all part of the job when you signed up for it - because otherwise it's just too painful and guilt-inducing to bear.

Winner: It was a well made movie but watching it made me feel super gross?

Curt Cobain: Montage of Heck on IMDB