The intrusion of real life prevented me from watching KURT COBAIN: MONTAGE OF HECK live when it premiered this past Monday, but that was no indication of my interest in the movie. I loved Nirvana and Cobain (same difference, really). Nevermind was released during my first semester at college, so needless to say I heard it a lot, both by choice and by osmosis. It was one of those records you didn’t have to buy your own copy of, because it was coming out of every dorm room and every bar and every frat house and every passing car everywhere you went.
I vividly remember getting the news of his suicide, as the first guests arrived at my 21st birthday party; it put a decided damper on the proceedings. I bought and read two different Cobain biographies, as well as his published Journals, I went down the rabbit hole of the Courtney had Kurt killed theory, I sat through LAST DAYS, I covered “Drain You” with my old rock band. I still have a copy of this magazine around here somewhere. I follow Frances Bean Cobain on Twitter. I’m still pissed I didn’t try to get into the Nirvana reunion in Brooklyn after their RNRHOF induction but I loved their solution to performing without Cobain. Favorite Nirvana album: In Utero. Favorite Nirvana song: “Breed.”
I thoroughly enjoyed MONTAGE OF HECK when I found the time (made the time) to watch it a couple days after its premiere. It is a brilliantly directed film, making spectacular use of the wealth of drawings and writings and paintings and audio cassettes and home video that Cobain left behind, bringing it all to cohesive life in an extension of the techniques that director Brett Morgen brought to the equally brilliant Robert Evans documentary, THE KID STAYS IN THE PICTURE. Hearing Cobain muddle through embryonic versions of songs that would become iconic was a particular treat.
But I have to say, when the movie ended, I was not sorry to leave his company.
Kurt Cobain was a genius, an extraordinarily talented songwriter, a brilliantly emotive singer, a gifted visual artist. He gave the world some of the most indelible art of the last thirty years. In hindsight it feels like Nirvana was the last band that pretty much everybody could agree on, but that might just be my age showing. But none of that changes the fact that he was a miserable bastard who seemed to be incapable of happiness.
The movie illuminates quite a lot of how he came to be this way: after being a happy, active, creative little boy, his parents’ divorce hit him really hard, he started acting out, and his (apparently) undiagnosed ADHD first drove his mother crazy enough to send him to live with his father, then his father remarried and he couldn’t get along with his new siblings, so he shuttled from one relative to the next, never making a real home and feeling isolated, unwanted.
I joked on Facebook that the first 20 minutes of the movie strongly reminded me of my son. Obviously it’s not an exact resemblance, as my wife and I have a very good marriage, divorce is nowhere on the horizon, we live in Brooklyn rather than a tiny town in the Pacific Northwest. But our son does have a pretty fierce case of ADHD, and it does make him very sensitive, very volatile, and very, very hungry for love and attention, particularly from his mother. Like Kurt he is always drawing or trying to make some kind of art, to the exclusion of any other external stimuli, and it can drive us crazy — sometimes it feels like if we don’t get in his face and yell at him he won’t hear a word we say while he tries to get the shading exactly right on whatever he’s drawing.
It’s a big challenge to parent a kid like that, and though we (mostly I) have come nowhere near perfection at least we are trying. Cobain’s parents seem to have thrown up their hands and given up on him when he was about seven years old. Just threw him to the wolves. And while the bottomless need for love that that neglect created certainly fueled his art, it also produced a rather miserable human being, one who I both felt sorry for and, as the movie went on, didn’t feel so sorry for.
In the runup to this movie’s release, there were a lot of interviews with director Brett Morgen and Cobain’s daughter Frances, who controls Cobain’s estate and furnished all the journals and recordings and home videos that make up the bulk of the film. Frances told Rolling Stone that she was not a big Nirvana fan, and that “When Brett and I first met, I was very specific about what I wanted to see, how I wanted Kurt to be represented. I told him, “I don’t want the mythology of Kurt or the romanticism.”
Because this guy was such a gifted artist, because everyone loved (loves) his music, because we all felt complicit to some extent in his death, because he hated being famous and he wouldn’t have been so famous if every one of us didn’t love his music, we have attached a certain mythos to him, as Frances suggests. We have sort of forgiven him for the way he went out, as if it isn’t his fault, that he had no other choice. Or even worse, we so wanted it to not be his fault, some of us (including someone who may or may not be typing this right now) halfway believed the cockamamie idea that Courtney Love had him murdered, then walked that back to relative sanity by just believing that Courtney made him so miserable that he didn’t see any other way out.
MONTAGE OF HECK does a brilliant job of showing Cobain’s artistic process, peeking into his wildly talented mind, but it also puts any notion that his death was anyone else’s fault to rest. If anything, the home video footage shows Courtney as relatively (relatively) stable and cheerful, trying to pull her miserable husband out of a funk that he seems to prefer.
My favorite song on In Utero was always “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle,” but like a lot of Nirvana songs, I never understood the lyrics. It wasn’t until years later that I finally decoded the chorus: “I miss the comfort in being sad.” I thought that was a deep thought for a while but this movie really shows what a selfish indulgence self-pity is. Yes, Kurt Cobain got dealt a lot of shitty cards. No, it wasn’t his fault. Yes, I feel sympathy for his awful upbringing, his lousy parents, his untreated mental condition.
But the moment Frances enters the picture is the moment I stop feeling bad for him and start wanting to kick him in the ass. Courtney is very clear in the movie that Frances was not an accident, that they specifically wanted to start a family as soon as possible, that they would have had more kids if he had not died. And Kurt writes in his journal about what a massive responsibility he’s taken on, that he’d do anything to protect his family.
Which is why it’s so troubling to see the footage of this guy nodding out, too high to even string a sentence together, holding his daughter in his lap while his wife tries to give her a haircut. The kid isn’t even walking yet and he can’t pull his head out of his ass long enough to make sure she doesn’t get stabbed with a pair of scissors. It’s like he didn’t even try — and this is in the easy part of parenting, when the baby is basically just a hamster you need to keep alive; when they start to talk, and talk back, that’s when the scores really start to change (as his own parents would probably scornfully point out to him).
I know it’s way too facile to say “he hated being famous” was the reason he was so unhappy — he had much bigger problems than that — but it’s not like he was drafted into the Rock Star Corps. It was a goal that he set out to achieve, and he achieved it, but he still couldn’t find any joy or satisfaction in it. Fair enough, you can just walk away from the Rock Star Corps if you really hate it. Instead he made a conscious choice to bring a child into the world, which is NOT something you can walk away from.
But he did, before that child’s third birthday, in the most selfish, horrifying way possible, and it’s really hard to sympathize with that, no matter what led up to it. It’s awful that his parents abandoned him, and I can appreciate the emotional scars that must have left. But rather than break the cycle, as he seems to have been deliberately trying to do, instead he paid that abuse forward, with interest, to Frances, abandoning her in the worst way imaginable, leaving her in the care of someone almost as unstable as he was (Courtney), who would prove unfit to parent almost immediately (largely due to grief over his death), forcing her to turn the child over to Kurt’s mother, who started this whole cycle in the first place.
Meanwhile this poor girl is growing up without a father, except that he’s so famous she’s hearing his voice on the radio, seeing his picture on T-shirts, everybody revering him as a hero while she’s struggling with the knowledge that she wasn’t enough to keep him around. She’s not missing the comfort in being sad, I guarantee you that.
In his suicide note, Cobain says that Frances will be better off without him, and he probably really believed that when he wrote it. After watching this movie, I kind of believe it too. In a perfect world he would have gone to get some therapy, gotten off drugs, made an album with Michael Stipe, and become a model parent, but it’s hard to imagine any of that could have ever really happened. He was just too damaged. If there was any hint of joy at all in this guy, surely there would have been some evidence of it somewhere in his personal archive. But I don’t think he ever so much as smiles (except ironically) anywhere in the movie. So maybe he really is in a better place now.
I am always going to love Nirvana’s music, and I still regret that they are the one band I liked in the early ’90s that I never got to see. But thanks to this movie I feel like I finally see Kurt Cobain clearly. Frances told Morgen to leave out “the mythology of Kurt or the romanticism.” Mission accomplished. She appears to be growing up to be a strong young woman. Let’s hope she’s the one who can break the cycle.