Kurt Cobain was born and raised in a dysfunctional family. This is what Montage of Heck seems to declare clearly since its beginning. Brett Morgen got an amount of unreleased material and wanted to build a documentary, with the help of Joe Beshenkovsky (editor) and Cameron Frankley (sound design) and above all with the approval of the Cobain family.
If after twenty-one years from his death you think you know everything about him, this movie will open some relevant Pandora’s boxes, that explain -or justify- that slice of life that the media have trumpeted, massacred, chewed and then spat out into the mouth of Nirvana’s fans, including me. And this is only the tip of the iceberg, because Kurt Cobain wasn’t born in 1987 with his band, but in 1967 in Aberdeen, Washington.
The massive work of Morgen, then, consisted in the editing of those Super 8 home movies, audio tracks, photos, drawings, paintings, which can shape an entire existence like a puzzle, keeping authentic many – but not all- of its facets. The animations and the clips of interviews (Cobain’s parents, his sister, his wife, Courtney Love, the stepmother, the former girlfriend Tracy Marander and his friend and bassist Krist Novoselic), just reinforce an already crystal clear story.
In the American sparkling Sixties, where the minds were all influenced by pastel colors, shiny materials, vaporous hairstyles and economy boom, the naive waitress Wendy Elizabeth met Don Cobain, married him at seventeen and two years later gave birth to the eldest son Kurt, an impetuous and full of energy kid. For his parents it was clearly more a bother than a virtue. At about the age of eight, an exasperated mother took his son to the paediatrician, who told her: “We have a problem.” Kurt was diagnosed with hyperactivity, and the solution was the Ritalin.
Eight years old and tranquillisers, a drastic attempt to suppress a personality that just wanted to come out, in the only way he knew. No matter the reason of that hyperactivity, what seemed right to do, was make it silent. “I can’t handle it, he must leave”, that’s what all the relatives and friends who lived with him said. He was like an unwanted package, hopeless and rebounded. Mistrust, misunderstanding, devaluation against a strong nature, had the effect of a frontal collision.
It goes without saying that Kurt did not become a docile and empty lamb, but a triggered bomb. The great feeling of shame, repeated on several occasions during the documentary, seems a reworking of the discomfort caused by not being “compliant” to society’s expectations.
Feeling out of social conventions and a family background like that, drug abuse and hooliganism seem a necessary step. Marijuana came into his life at thirteen years old, heroin at nineteen. In between there are songs, drawings, writings, the miraculous knowledge of punk rock and the urgency to play. The inspiration comes from: empathetic erosion, drugs, stomach pain. The physical need to express himself didn’t aim at fame and could not be contained. It had very little to do with his art, because everything that celebrity asked for was to investigate on his personality and story, and then use it to feed the curious public, attracted by that damn rock star. The media and the fans wanted to understand his lyrics, get into his head, at a time when only a silent day could give just little peace.
“This will change everything. You’re not ready for that” said his mother when she heard his first demos, literally frightened by a wall of sound so far away from everything. He didn’t want to please anyone.
The rock world has in fact been changed by Nirvana. The short life of Kurt Cobain, however, could only be curbed by the death. Everything else is in our hands and ears.