It’s usually the same with famous actors and musicians: when they die, fans have a really, really hard time believing it.

Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck



Conspiracy theories bubble up from the depths of God-knows-where while folklore and mythologies sprout, and legends adjust to incorporate the magnanimity of these shooting stars — Elvis, Jim Morrison and Tupac among them. Each is said to dwell now in some far-off corner of the Earth, destined to a life of personal repose, away from all the fanaticism and phoniness that probably drove them to death in the first place.

On April 8, 1994, a VECA Electric employee discovered Kurt Cobain’s body in Cobain’s home in Washington. A shotgun rested on his chest; there were bullet wounds near his temple. He had left a handwritten note in a flowerpot, and the coroner determined the death a suicide.

That weekend, a public vigil was held in Seattle, where Cobain’s wife, Courtney Love, and his daughter, Frances Bean Cobain, read the note and grieved openly with fans. Amy Dickinson, in an article titled “Kurt Cobain’s Last Tour,” described the Buddhist-inspired memorial that followed, and the manner in which Cobain’s ashes were handled: “(his) ashes have now been fully consecrated and formed into roughly a dozen tsatsas. A small shrine, called a nirvana stupa, is being made by a Tibetan Buddhist artisan to house them.”

At the time of his death, Cobain and Love had been arguing extensively and consistently about everything from money to music. Many theorists have interpreted some of what Rosemary Carroll (Cobain’s attorney) said following his death, and they claim Cobain faked the incident to elude a difficult divorce.

Other theorists adhere to the information provided by Tom Grant, a private investigator hired by Courtney Love to investigate the death. Grant concluded that it was, in fact, a homicide, and many fans have since mistaken the case’s vagueness for the possibility that Cobain is still alive somewhere in the world today.

Director Brett Morgen’s “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” does wonders to discredit and dispel all theories, tales and lies surrounding Kurt Cobain’s death (and life). The film’s most poignant and most beautiful contribution to the Nirvana/Cobain canon is the way it introduces him above all else as a man, a father and a husband. Though he became a demi-god of sorts in the world of alternative-grunge rock, representing the millions of disaffected, angry and disheartened youth, “Montage of Heck” reminds us that he was a young man with problems, too. He simply had a talent for making them inhabitable.

Courtney Love came to Morgen in 2007 with the idea of taking a more intimate, more honest look at Cobain’s chaotic life. Sorting through 200 hours of unreleased music and film and several thousand pages of writing and documentation, Morgen delivers “Montage of Heck” — the first Kurt Cobain documentary that accounts for full participation from his family. This certainly gives the film a balanced perspective, albeit one of astounding, sometimes shocking emotion. Part of the tension in the storytelling emerges precisely from this contradiction: How can family members accurately paint the picture of a loved one when they each feel differently about his or her passing? Where does truth lie in relation to tragedy?

In an interview with Paste Magazine, Morgen explains how he was given access to all kinds of undiscovered audiotapes and video reels, including a 1988 clip of Cobain losing his virginity. He notes that with certain recordings, no one – not even Courtney — had heard them before.

In this way, “Montage of Heck” is also a feat of rediscovery, not just for the millions of Nirvana fans, but also for Cobain’s closest family and friends. They each revisit the world they shared before 1994, and as we watch the story unfold, we become more and more aware of this sense of haunting. Morgen describes it perfectly: “that (haunting) became a thing with our film — the interviews sort of go from day to night. It starts out sort of with morning in America, and everything is optimistic and groovy. And then at some point the sun goes down, and we’re starting to get to 5 o’clock, and then we go into the evening and into the shadows.”

What also plays into this cathartic, yet unsettling feeling in the film is the audio-visual portrayal of Cobain’s own psyche. He was deeply disturbed by the fame and spotlight that found him and dragged him from the American music underground. He was wary of the sociological norms that defined what an American male should be, what a husband and a father should be, and he felt a deep alienation as a result. Many of Cobain’s diary entries, shown in tender sequences interspersed between interviews, reveal the paranoia and agitation he felt, even from an early age.

It took eight years of researching, sifting, compiling, editing, talking, choosing, recreating and envisioning to bring “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” into form. At 132 minutes long, the documentary offers deep insight into the life of Cobain and his family without overstaying its welcome. Photos, artwork, animations, diaries, home videos and recordings give the film a distinct personality, as though the story of Cobain’s life has the same vitality as the man himself — not the rock star, but the 27-year-old kid from Aberdeen, Washington.

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