Since his tragic death in 1994, Curt Cobain has solidified his position as one of the legendary musicians during the 1990s. To be frank with you, I did not give much attention to his band Nirvana mainly because I was very young and more occupied with other things during that time, but I heard about him and his band like many others, and I was certainly familiar with that memorable album cover image of Nirvana’s second album “Nevermind”, though I have never considered listening to it yet.
So, I must admit to you that I do not know much about Cobain except a few bits of information about his problematic personal life and his iconic status, but I can tell you that HBO documentary “Cobain: Montage of Heck” is informative and compelling as closely looking into an artist who was clearly talented – and deeply troubled. The documentary draws an honest human portrayal which is alternatively revealing and harrowing with its absorbing mix of various archival materials, and it also gives us some valuable insights on the agony and the ecstasy during Cobain’s short career.
Cobain’s early childhood years in Aberdeen, Washington during the late 1960s were pretty simple and ordinary, and his parents reminisce about how bright and happy their son was during that period. While often hyperactive, he was a smart, sensitive kid with considerable potentials, and young Cobain’s perky appearance shown through their family photos and home movies makes a poignant contrast to his gloomy later years.
After his parents divorced when he was nine, Cobain, who was deeply hurt and shamed by this painful change as he often said to others, became a troublemaker bouncing around his parents and other family members. He soon experienced drug and alcohol during his wandering adolescent years, and one of his personal recordings candidly reveals one shameful sexual incident which is depicted through a moody but vivid animation sequence.
That incident drove him to a suicidal attempt during one night, but he failed to kill himself by a lucky coincidence, and then he tried to move on with his own life as taking the first steps of his music career. Tracey Marander, who was his first girlfriend, tells us her story of their short relationship during the late 1980s. She was usually the one who took care of their financial hardships, and he mostly procrastinated while occasionally being focused on his music, but their relationship worked for a while. Around the time when things started to get better for Cobain and Nirvana, he and Marander eventually ended their relationship, but she has no hard feeling about that. She understood him well enough to live with him, and they just became estranged from each other somehow as he focused more on his music.
While Nirvana became a newcomer band to watch through the modest success of its first album “Bleach”, its second album “Nevermind” catapulted Cobain and Nirvana to instant stardom. Nirvana was soon regarded as “the flagship band of Generation X” by enthusiastic fans and critics, and Cobain suddenly became the representative of his generation, a burdensome position which he never wanted or dreamed of. When she listened to the recording tape of “Nevermind” before its release, Cobain’s mother instantly sensed what would happen next, and she warned her son: “You’re not ready for this.”
And he was indeed not ready for the fame he would have to deal with for the rest of his life. While very ambitious about his music and career, he was also quite sensitive about criticism. To make matters worse, he was still struggling with depression and heroin addiction. Quite frank about their addiction problem in the past, his wife Courtney Love tells us how they tried hard for their young daughter Frances, who was unfortunately born with drug-addicted condition but brought up fairly well by her flawed but sincere parents. As reflected by one embarrassing home movie footage scene, Cobain and Love were not exactly a model couple to say the least, but, as shown from their happy moments with their daughter, it did look possible that Cobain might attain the balance in his life through his family he deeply loved and cared about.
Through the full cooperation of Love and other Cobain family members, the director Brett Morgen, who was Oscar-nominated for his documentary “On the Ropes” (1999), and his crew got a full access to the Cobain family archives as well as Cobain’s own personal records. Fluidly flowing around archival materials, interview clips, and animation sequences along with many of his famous songs on the soundtrack, the documentary is often revealing as showing how Cobain’s music was intertwined with his personal problems in many ways. Some of the animation sequences in the documentary, which are based on Cobain’s own words and sketches, are visually striking for their disturbing power, and they effectively convey to us his darkest moments full of despair and depression. Watching these moments, I could not help but think of a similar cri de cœur I experienced from Alan Parker’s “Pink Floyd: The Wall” (1982), a memorable musical film which brutally thrusts us into the disturbed mental state of a fictional popular rock musician as depressed as Cobain.
As his band member and close friend Krist Novoselic, who is now 50 along with his own career, points out at one point during his interview, Cobain had already been crying for help to others through his songs – and Novoselic and others close to Cobain see that more clearly now than before. Perhaps he could have gotten more help, but he kept going down toward the bottom of depression and addiction, and he eventually killed himself on April 5th, 1994, not long after his previous suicide attempt in Rome.
We can only imagine how much more Cobain could have achieved if he had avoided that tragedy, but he left a big indelible mark in the modern rock music history through his works, which will probably live far longer than him. “Cobain: Montage of Heck” did a heck of job in presenting his life and music with respect, honesty, and understanding while avoiding turning itself into a shallow hagiography, and it is a fabulous work to watch regardless of whether you are interested in Cobain’s music or not.