It’s 48 hours since I watched Brett Morgen’s latest documentary, Cobain: Montage of Heck, and for the most part I’m still trying to unpick what I think of it. There’s much to be said for any theatrical experience that does that – this is far from popcorn cinema – and much about the film is immediately admirable.
The first and most noteworthy of these is the fact that Morgen has venerated an undeniably talented musician, writer and artist, without mimicking the language of the Cobain cult that warped his existence both before and after his death. Through the myriad of drawings, recordings, home-footage, notebooks and interviews that Morgen weaves into a coherent narrative, there is a very honest humanistic attempt to reach the actual person that lay beneath the hysteria that has clouded so much of Cobain’s reputation ever since the release of Nevermind in 1991.
Second to this, the production of the film itself is impressive: the animations based on Cobain’s personal drawings, the rearrangements of Cobain’s songs in the background, and the balance between abstract offcuts exploring his diary entries against straight interviews with family and friends creates a collage that seeks to reflect a tone of thought rather than an overt explanation for what eventually took place. The real triumph of this is that it completely shreds any chance of indulging an audience’s morbid curiosity: in the two days since watching it, more people have asked me whether it explains his death, or explores conspiracy theories than they have what it was like and how it was put together. To the former, yes – it does explain it; to the latter – don’t be absurd. By the time you finish watching it’s pretty clear that Nirvana’s haunted frontman was dealing with a lot more than anyone around him or apart from him could really comprehend, and that, in itself, is an answer.
If this sounds pretty comprehensively positive, the film nonetheless has its problems. For a start, the interviews are intimate and fittingly vetted to close family and friends on the one hand, but tragically limited on the other. Not even Dave Grohl (who was filming his own documentary Sonic Highways at the time) features, and despite Morgen’s decision that it was fine without him, it isn’t. With so few people to choose from as it is, how could one more authoritative voice hurt? Neither, for that matter, does Pat Smear, and Krist Novoselic’s contributions are comparatively small. Courtney Love features with at least a frank honesty, but it’s hard not to feel that in spite of the vast good that comes of focussing on the voice of the artist himself, we could do with a few more thrown in there for good measure.
If not wholly successful in its structure (it does also occasionally lack the ability to keep one’s full attention), Cobain: Montage of Heck will certainly go down as the definitive documentary on this talented, frustrating, and endlessly fascinating man who left us all too early.