The Myths of Kurt Cobain Resurface in a New Documentary

The film’s theatrical poster (all images courtesy HBO)

The death of Kurt Cobain in early April of 1994 shocked almost nobody who knew him and almost everybody who didn’t. The story has been “enriched” by a conspiracy theory suggesting that Courtney Love either ordered a hit on her husband or outright murdered him herself, claims that would be surreal and offensive if they weren’t so easily dismissed by a casual glance at the evidence. Few people know that just weeks before he died, the most famous rockstar in the world spent a night sleeping off a heroin overdose alone in the backseat of a Plymouth Valiant, exiled from a group of drug abusers who didn’t want to take responsibility for him when he stopped breathing. There were, also, the numerous suicide attempts throughout Cobain’s life that failed either from a lack of trying or a lack of planning, including an overdose of Rohypnol and heroin, two months before he died, in Rome, from which Love actually revived him.

But we know far more about Kurt Cobain now than we did when he was alive. Numerous excavations of his private thoughts have been made public just about every other year, beginning with Charles Cross’s pathologically detailed biography Heavier Than Heaven in 2001, Cobain’s journals that following year, and the box set With the Lights Out two years after that, which exhumed four disks of primitive and undercooked music that one suspects Cobain would have sooner kept buried. The portraits of Cobain that do not incessantly wink in the direction of his suicide have garnered less interest, like Sub Pop founder Bruce Pavitt’s photo journal of Nirvana’s European tour in 1989, which shows what Kurt would have been like if he had never gotten famous; or, in other words, how the sobbing, anxious young man at the end of his life would have preferred to be remembered.

Brett Morgen, a fine and often innovative documentarian, has issued the latest attempt at interpreting the life and death of Kurt Cobain. Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck does the heroic work of providing a space to properly memorialize Cobain, using home video footage and animating the words of his journals with images to tell the story electrically. The film is loud, gorgeous, and intricately wrought; as a work of art, its nearly universal praise is well deserved. I challenge even the most cynical of Nirvana acolytes not to reach for the tissues when he or she bears witness to just how deeply the young child was loved. Kurt Cobain, begging that a family game night never end. Kurt Cobain, precocious, hyperactive firstborn. Kurt Cobain and one of several pet cats he nurtured over the course of his life. In one scene, an audio clip unearthed by Morgen features one of many sound collages created by Cobain (one of which is also called “Montage of Heck”) that unexpectedly captures the sound of Kurt taking a phone call. It is cinema in the key of grunge rock, playing its softest moments against its hardest moments without losing the intensity of either. It is devastating to watch. And it is not Kurt Cobain’s movie.

Kurt Cobain’s words are given life through the use of animation

That was the opinion expressed at a screening in Seattle by a woman who claimed to have known both Cobain and Courtney Love. It was a criticism also leveled against Charles Cross, who, in writing Heavier Than Heaven, relied on much of the same archival material as Morgen. That material, it must be said, is presumably only offered at the discretion of Courtney Love, and it appears that in both cases she had at least one stipulation for its access, which was the non-participation of Dave Grohl.

It cannot be completely a coincidence that Grohl is absent from the stories of both Cross and Morgen. He does not appear in anything but ancient archival footage in Montage of Heck, a considerable narrative defect that Morgen explained away by telling audiences that Grohl only sat down for an interview a few weeks before picture lock, and there was no way to work him in. For a director so committed to telling the definitive narrative of Kurt Cobain’s life that he spent eight long years researching this admission comes across as disingenuous.

More likely, Morgen chose not to include Grohl because he would have had few kind words to say about Courtney Love. Until Nirvana’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year, Grohl had not spoken to Love since Kurt’s death, a span of almost exactly twenty years to the day.

An undated photograph of Kurt Cobain at home

One reason for their bitter relationship may have to do with something Morgen saves for the very last interview in the film, when he asks Courtney Love if she ever cheated on her husband. We have just been treated to several intimate scenes of the two, hilariously bantering away or standing in awe of newborn Frances Bean, so what precedent did we have for Morgen’s question if not the director’s own imperative? Love flatly denies it, but inexplicably adds the creepy suggestion that her “desire to cheat on Kurt made him suicidal.” We are then shown what looks to be the suicide note that Kurt left behind for his attempt in Rome, and Morgen’s camera fixates on all the details but the one reported by Charles Cross in Heavier Than Heaven: Kurt explicitly accuses Courtney Love of having an affair with Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins.

Dave Grohl may know something we don’t, but it’s clear that Kurt believed it palpably. By the time “You Know You’re Right” was recorded — just three months before Kurt Cobain’s death, it turned out to be the last Nirvana track — the song had mutated from an uneven B-side into an acid barb directed at Courtney Love. The next month, when Nirvana was touring Europe, Love remained at home in Los Angeles. Kurt must have believed she cheated on him then, because that following Valentine’s Day, he finished his set with a version “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” whose bone-quaking, heart-breaking pain must be heard to be believed; the suicide attempt in Rome was less than three weeks later, and that he did it with Love in the room suggests that he wanted her to feel it first. 

But you won’t hear any of this from Morgen, who spends virtually no time probing Nirvana’s music for clues to Cobain’s death. And Morgen seems unwilling or unable to grapple with the nature of Cobain’s relationship with Love. Instead, Morgen allows the story to hinge on the divorce of his parents and Kurt’s almost immediate turn to drugs to dull the pain, and so all the footage of Kurt and Courtney together is happy to the point of being idyllic. Morgen compels his audience to understand Cobain’s suicide in the context of a man undone by his base impulses instead of someone who’d felt when he lost Courtney that he’d finally lost everything.

Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love (photo credit Dora Handel/Corbis)
Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love (photo credit Dora Handel/Corbis)

By sanitizing Montage of Heck for Courtney’s consumption (and she has already seen it several times), the film preserves the legend of Kurt Cobain, counter-culture god suffocated by the pressures of major labels and mass consumption. Kurt Cobain, who went out like a rockstar, instead of a cuckold. Fans of Nirvana may never completely know why he believed Courtney had insulted him to the degree that he did, but as we line up to sold-out screenings of the film, perhaps that’s because we simply don’t want to. Cobain never accused Courtney in any way he intended to make public. He approached interviews as an opportunity to cultivate his own myth. One suspects he would have appreciated the film, too.

Morgen ends the film with the better-known Unplugged version of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” preferring to let the question hang unanswered. He might have also gone with “You Know You’re Right.” When Courtney Love’s band Hole played it in tribute the year after Kurt died, she titled it “You’ve Got No Right.”

Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck is in select theaters now and debuts today on HBO.

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