Kurt Cobain: The Puzzle Pieces He Left Behind

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Our review of a documentary of Kurt Cobain, from 2015…

Paul Simon sang how “every generation throws a hero up the pop charts,” and in the early ’90s, it was Kurt Cobain. More antihero than hero, per se – ideal for those pop cultural times – his suicide provided a tragic yet also in its way perfect ending to his tale.

The one big thing Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck skips is that last chapter of the Nirvana frontman’s story: no need, really, as almost anyone knows it already (though the aftermath of his deification is significant). Otherwise director Brett Morgen’s documentary does dig deeply into Cobain’s life and draws from his extensive creative archives and talks with his family and first girlfriend to create a largely compelling portrait that is being described in such terms as “demythologizing” and “definitive” – to which this reviewer says: well, yes, but…. And, yet again, offers him up as a springboard to ponder the soul of his generation.

The film – which screened to a packed theater during the 2015 South By Southwest Film & Music festivals and did boffo box office in limited release to specialty theaters – utilizes its subject’s many notepads, visual artwork, jottings, tapes of his early music, videos and more to deeply plumb the notion of just who Cobain was, quite effectively animating the cartoons he drew, for instance. It is a prodigious work of filmmaking worthy of most all of the lavish praise it has evoked that packs a good deal of emotional wallop into its 145-minute running time. One does come away likely knowing Cobain better, and as he probably should best and will ever best be known: An intelligent and highly (overly?) sensitive as well as dysfunctional human with a profound artistic drive and musical talent and ambition. And someone haunted by a death wish. Hence it is definitive if just by default alone.

But questions remain. Why did the trauma of a broken family and home life so affect Cobain? Why wasn’t Dave Grohl’s interview included? What about the cripplingly painful stomach ailment that plagued Cobain during his life that was said to be one reason he turned to heroin? And just why did he and his music connect so profoundly?

The home videos where the sometimes junked-out Cobain and wife Courtney Love banter like teenagers does reveal what feels like a genuine love between them. Some are genuinely touching; others are so excruciating the viewer almost wishes for a quick end to those scenes, revealing as they may be.

Even though the film humanizes Cobain, rather than demythologizing him it seems instead to bring the myth more into line with the spiritual truth of who he was. And even if it can’t explain the eternal mystery of why some people end their own lives, one does get closer to maybe why he did and that act’s origins in his life.

Aptly titled as a “montage,” the documentary does gather and somewhat fit together enough fascinating puzzle pieces Cobain left behind to bring him back to us in a way his fans and rock music buffs might hope it would. Hence the doc performs a valuable tribute to someone who, as was said of Abraham Lincoln as he was dying, now belongs to the ages.

Cobain, born February 20, 1967, died on April 5, 1994, at age 27.

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Rob Patterson
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