A cherubic blond toddler is shown in Super 8 film: playing on a lawn, sitting on his parents' laps, celebrating birthdays. He's a lovely child and clearly adored. It's easy to imagine his future as, essentially, peaceful and stable, full of strong connections—and very hard to imagine what actually happened: that this babe in arms, Kurt Cobain, grew up to be a tormented artist who would take his own life at age 27.
Some of these images, however -- presented in a powerful, sensitive, and gorgeously rendered new documentary, Montage of Heck, about the life of the Nirvana frontman -- convey qualities that remained in the singer's life to the day he died. He was adored. And he fostered a sense of connection among millions of fans around the world, though he was, tragically, unable to feel secure in their embrace.
The project began when Cobain's widow, singer/actress Courtney Love, approached director Brett Morgen (On the Ropes, The Kid Stays in the Picture). She had seen and admired his work and wondered if he might be interested in helming a film about Cobain, with the use of materials from her personal archives. He did not need to be asked twice. "This was the biggest gift I've been given as a filmmaker," Morgen told a crowd at the Tribeca Film Festival, during a post-screening Q&A with Love. She gave Morgen complete access to a trove of home movies, journals, audiocassettes, notebooks, photographs, and drawings, then let him get to work.
But Cobain died young, in 1994, and his life had been examined extensively in many previous works. A good amount had already been said, for example, about how he struggled to recover from the chaotic aftermath of his parents' divorce; how he was uncomfortable, even disgusted, with fame from almost the moment he achieved it; and how the heroin he relied upon to face the world (and to soothe stomach ailments that were never medically resolved) contributed to his ruin. Could there be new stories to tell?
As it turned out, there were. Montage reveals, for example, that the notion of the self-conscious Cobain taking some kind of unwilling crowd-dive into stardom was never correct. "He didn't want to just be in a bar band and play music that way. He wanted to be a success," says one of his ex-girlfriends, Tracy Marander. (There don't seem to be many exes, by the way; Cobain was shy and appeared to lack confidence in dating.) His musical ambitions are revealed in notebook pages filled with industry contacts (names and phone numbers recorded in a childlike hand) and motivational aphorisms regarding band practice.
We learn from Nirvana bandmate Krist Novoselic that Cobain feared humiliation more than almost anything. He was devastated by an early bad review: "They said [the music] was 'like Lynyrd Skynyrd but without the flares,'" Novoselic recalls. "Kurt was really hurt by that...If he ever thought he was humiliated, then you'd see the rage come out." In general, Cobain's emotional reserves were nowhere close to what he'd need to handle megastardom. This we knew before Montage -- but a new twist the film offers is that his own mother, Wendy O'Connor, saw this problem coming before anyone else. In one of the film's most poignant moments, she reveals that she almost started crying when Cobain played her a master tape for the band's breakthrough album, Nevermind. "[It was] not from happiness," she says. "It was fear...I knew this was going to change everything. And I said, 'You'd better buckle up...because you are not ready for this.'"
She was right, of course; and his readiness never materialized to meet his circumstances. He became hugely famous, his work celebrated globally; then he panicked, he floundered, he self-medicated, and he died. With all his resources, why could he not find (or accept) the help he needed? This is one question that remains unanswered, along with all the questions of what could have lain ahead in Cobain's life.
One upside amid the poignant sadness is this: Cobain's daughter, Frances -- shown in Montage as a baby loved and cared for by, shall we say, compromised parents -- is an executive producer of the film. Now 22, she's a visual artist -- and has revealed to the press that though she respects Nirvana's work, she's not especially a fan. Amen to that: She is carving her own path, finding her own passions. She has reconciled with her mother, from whom she was estranged during Love's times of substance abuse, and seems to be looking with optimism to the future. Go live your life, Frances. It's all ahead of you.
Montage is a beautiful film but also, for obvious reasons, a hauntingly difficult one, saturated in loss and regret -- regret over what happened and over what never will. "His spirit definitely comes out," Love said of the film at Tribeca. "It's heavy, but it's as close to the truth as anyone's gonna get." - Pamela Grossman
Montage of Heck is currently screening on HBO, in selected theaters, and at film festivals worldwide.
Ms. Grossman is a Brooklyn-based writer. Her work has been published in Ms., Salon.com, The Village Voice, and Filmmaker magazine, among other outlets, and she is a regular contributor to Women's Enews.