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Montage of Heck (2015); And My Complicated Relationship with Kurt Cobain

April 24, 2015

Kurt-Cobain-Montage-of-Heck-350x524I felt strange leaving the theater after Montage of Heck ended. As if awakening from a heroin nod, I emerged from what felt like a dream state riddled with signs of substance overload; lethargy and confusion. Kurt Cobain has been my personal Jesus since adolescence. Like many others raised in the albatross of the 1990s, MTV was god’s eye into the music world showcasing the most important and cutting edge music videos of the time. MTV exposed me to an entire culture that would have never made its way into my Southern Christian home, and furthermore my blooming consciousness, any other conceivable way. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was the precursor to all the rage that had yet to come, while still tapping into the childhood anger I already possessed. But, this growing devotion only made my fandom that more complicated. Kurt would have despised it. Knowing this, I’ve always swept the idea to the back of my head in order to continue my idolization. It took Brett Morgan’s Montage of Heck to destroy the false idol I had praised and for good reasons.

In my youth Nirvana reigned as my first headbanging experience leading to years in which I wore my devotion to them literally on my sleeves, wrists, chest, and in my own journals where I frequently used the same phrases and images that I had seen and read of Kurt. He was my savior, a martyr whose own fucked up existence transcended time and space to speak to mine. I worshipped him. Every bootleg, every song, every lyric, every piece of his writings, I scrutinized with precision to get closer to him, the true him. I worshiped at the altar of Cobain. My communion was Bleach and Nevermind, my Bible In Utero.


Montage of Heck discouraged me of that devotion of Kurt. It doesn’t scold fans, nor does it attempt to make a larger objection to the Nirvana fandom. Instead it plays out naturally and intimately showing the very lens that exposed much of Nirvana’s fan base to Kurt and how easy it became for others to take every bit of this man for themselves. Montage of Heck holds a mirror to society and shows how media builds up then breaks apart nearly every major icon we idolize through expectations and obsession; from Judy Garland to Michael Jackson.

Morgan’s film is titled from a mixtape Kurt made in 1989. In mixtape like fashion, Montage of Heck is a combination of interviews, concert footage, behind the scenes footage, and rare tapes of and about Kurt. Morgan adds a number of scenes where Kurt’s journals and sketches are animated while voice recorded monologues are set to an animated cartoon Kurt. For some critics, this decision is one of the weakest elements of the film. I rather enjoyed them as they were a crafty way of putting images to the long, drawn out tales told about Kurt from his family members and himself.


Montage of Heck isn’t a gleaming image of Kurt that portrays him as some tortured artist. It gives us the good with the bad. Family members never before seen in interviews discuss how difficult he was in his youth. How his rebellious nature and unfocused anger was the cause for them losing their wits end and kicking him out on several occasions. His friends speak on how his anger affected him while Courtney Love discusses his affinity for heroin and how it made her pregnancy that much more difficult.

The concert footage is a fascinating view into the very beast of Kurt’s burden. The film opens to a backstage where Nirvana is preparing to perform in front of a sea of cheering faces. The crowd stretches back for miles, an immeasurable amount of people resembling the attendance of Woodstock. Yet, all are present for no other band except Nirvana. Kurt is wheeled on stage in a wheelchair donning a wig and a moo-moo of sorts while the band jokes that the performance is too much and is killing him. Kurt falls to the group cryptically appearing dead. The scene cuts and the film begins traversing backwards into childhood presenting his life from birth to suicide.


As his years with Nirvana develop, so does the attendance of the crowds. We see an early performance of the band where Kurt is so shy that he faces away from the band, eyes closed facing a wall while he grunts out lyrics. The footage varies and we watch as the fan base of Nirvana grows throughout the years. A few head bangers here, a basement filled with moshers there before evolving into larger venues, MTV Unplugged, then the coagulated sea we witness at the beginning. In each the fans appear more cleaned up, more varied, but still ready to rage. This is the glory of Nirvana, an aspect savored in the music featured throughout.

But it’s Morgan’s ability to show Kurt in his most raw form that humanizes the god in to a man. Francis Bean pointed out that our society sanctifies dead musicians; we idolize youth And love rock and roll. Kurt immortalized himself by taking away his ability to grow older, make shitty songs, fade out and bald. Kurt has been exalted because he’s a “martyr” which makes it hard to remember that all along he was a flawed, complex human who wasn’t always writing begrudged music or cultivating the fame and success of his band. Large chunks of his time were spent high on heroin and lazing around. The home videos are the most telling moments watching Kurt and Courtney in seeming solitude except for the one person filming. Courtney’s compliments to his beauty and his own devotion to her seems poetic through their moments together, but also daunting in the face of their addiction.

Kurt Cobain File Photos

Montage of Heck pulls the wool from over our eyes and shows us a man of great potential, but deep issues like all of us. The same things that make Kurt a god in society makes him a mere man through Morgan’s eyes which allowed me to separate the fact and fiction and for that I am grateful.

SEE IT. In theaters April 24th and on HBO May 4th.

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