Few figures over the past couple decades loom larger over pop culture than Kurt Cobain. It may have been nearly 25 years since the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video broke alternative rock to the mainstream, but the Nirvana frontman remains relevant in ways that few rock stars do. Hot Topic still sells more than 25 different Nirvana T-shirts to teenagers, many of them adorned with Cobain’s face. The number of people in their thirties and forties whose lives are different now than if they had never heard Nevermind is obviously unknowable, but it’s probably huge. Cobain, through Nirvana, introduced a subculture to millions who may not have had access to it without him.
There are probably a few reasons why Cobain remains so compelling: The music he created with Nirvana holds up incredibly well, he was so famous during his lifetime that there remains a mythology around him, and–of course–he died young, tragically, and in a way that it’s easy to romanticize. If you’re a teenager today, Nirvana may be classic rock, but it’s classic rock that means something.
Cobain means a lot to many people, but for all the fascination, his story is one that has seldom been properly told. There’s one strong biography, and glimpses at his journals, but outside of those, the depth of his story–one which defies the typical Behind The Music arc–has rarely been explored.
That may be why Courtney Love and Francis Bean Cobain sought out a filmmaker they trusted to tell the story. And when Brett Morgen–director of The Kid Stays In The Picture and the Oscar-nominated On The Ropes–got the call, he quickly went from apprehension to interest.
“Like most people, I was a bit cynical as to whether or not there was anything left to be said or discussed related to Kurt Cobain, but as I soon discovered, there was a lot left to be said or discussed about Kurt Cobain,” Morgen explains. “Up to now, there have been a couple documentaries made and there have been some books written, but none of them included or were able to include the one thing that draws us to Kurt, which is his art and his music.”
Morgen took on the project–with access to extensive archives of Cobain’s life, art, and music–in order to tell the story that was missing. That film, Kurt Cobain: Montage Of Heck, premiered in January at Sundance, and came to Austin in March for SXSW before a limited theatrical run beginning on April 24–to ensure the film is awards-eligible–and its HBO premiere in early May. For Morgen, it was an eight-year journey of immersing himself in Cobain’s art, music, and personality in order to find the story that we haven’t already heard.
Morgen had unprecedented access to Cobain’s materials–Love let him in to a storage facility that had a huge amount of unfiltered records, videos, journals, sketchbooks, and more. And as he began exploring, he learned something both important and unexpected about Cobain–something that changed the way he’d tell his story. “I recognized that Kurt was a man who was so expressive in so many different forms of media,” Morgen says, “But the one area I felt he was kind of awkward with were interviews. And yet that’s how most people got to know Kurt’s story. I determined at that point that rather than rely on Kurt’s interviews to tell the story of his life, I’ll use his art to tell his experiences in life.”
Because Cobain expressed himself creatively in so many different media–music, film score, sound collage, sound design, spoken word, painting, sculpting, drawing, cartooning, Super-8 filmmaking, still photography–telling his story without relying on archival interview footage was a unique possibility.
“In a sense, he left behind this visual and oral record of his experience in life,” Morgen says. “The reason we continue to talk about Kurt is he was so honest and expressive with his feelings and those are all embedded in this work. So it felt like the most honest way to tell Kurt’s story was not through his words as filtered by the media, but through his acts of expression.”
Once Morgen made the decision to eschew interview footage for Cobain’s own work, in whatever medium best told his story, the question he had to answer was a heavy, existential one: Who was Kurt Cobain?
“When I was given access to the storage facility and I started going through all this unfiltered media,” Morgen says, “A picture of this boy named Kurt started to emerge, AND this man named Kurt that was so different than the guy who presented himself to the media.”
Morgen tried not to project a narrative onto Cobain, and looked instead for patterns that began to come through as he dug through the mountain of archives. Like on all of his films, he collected the material and arranged it all chronologically, in order to see which themes emerge. That’s how he discovered what ended up being the lesson he learned about Kurt Cobain.
Inevitably, themes begin to emerge–it’s almost like they’re glowing. You just have to be sensitive to it,” Morgen says. “With Cobain, it’s not like I went into this project with the idea that his Achilles heel in life was ridicule, shame, and humiliation. That isn’t something I thought about entering the film, but as I got deeper into it, I realized that it was the most common expression in his art and in his journals–even in his interviews. So those themes really started to shape and dictate the narrative a little bit.”
Morgen was well aware that telling a story that’s going to be considered one of the definitive looks at a figure as culturally significant as Kurt Cobain came with some challenges, but he says that he never felt like telling that story put an undue amount of pressure on him.
“If you’re a baseball player, hopefully if you get up and get off the bench and take a swing in game seven of the World Series, you approach it like it’s a preseason game, or you’re back in little league. If you’re a professional you can’t get intimidated by your environment,” Morgen says. “If I’d thought about the pressure I would never have gotten out of bed.”
Morgen was granted final cut on the film by both the studio and by the family, and he didn’t have a tight deadline to hit–instead, he was able to take the material and shape it into the story that needed to be told. “I was motivated to do the best work that I was capable of doing, and I can honestly tell you that I left nothing on the table. The only reason we’re talking right now is I felt I had completed the journey,” he says. “I was going to continue to work on this film until it was done, until I felt I had got it to where it needed to go. I feel like we arrived there.”
He also wasn’t intimidated at the idea that countless fans who have their own ideas about Cobain would be watching his movie. There are parts of Montage of Heck where Cobain looks downright awful–he relates a story about his first sexual experience that paints no one in a good light, and home video footage of an obviously high Cobain with Love and Frances Bean is tough to watch–but putting those out there gave him the chance to show that this is a story about Kurt Cobain, the human.
“A lot of people feel possessive over Kurt. Fans do, as well as family members and associates. But as far as I’m concerned the only person who has, who should be the arbiter is his daughter,” Morgen says. “It really was up to her to tell me if I had crossed the line or not, not anyone else. I had no interest in sweeping all of his transgressions under the rug. I just wanted to sort of reveal the man behind the myth. What I found was the man was much more interesting and, as a byproduct, likable than the myth.”
Morgen describes the process of making Montage Of Heck as “a recipe for a nervous breakdown,” and it’s hard to argue. “Making a movie about a boy named Kurt’s interior journey through life, as depicted through his art?” he laughs. But because of his subject, there were opportunities that came with it.
“Most films, you’re shooting from the outside, trying to look inward,” Morgen says. “Here, he were going from the inside and looking out. You just couldn’t make this film about most people. It’s very unique to Kurt.”
Some of that was by necessity. Morgen threw out interview footage, because he didn’t trust it, and Cobain wasn’t the subject of cinema verite-style documentaries during his lifetime–there’s no Dont Look Back full of unfiltered, observational footage of Nirvana or Cobain. Beyond concert footage–which does appear in Montage of Heck, Cobain steered most of the filmed footage of himself that Morgen had to pull from.
The result is a film that, Morgen estimates, is 80%-85% previously unseen material. “That wasn’t because I wanted to do a rarities album,” he notes, “It was because we wanted to get to the center of Kurt.”
Perhaps the most revealing elements of Montage of Heck are the home movies Cobain and Love shot over the years. In them, there’s a very different side of the couple playing out–neither the rock stars or the tortured artists are present, nor the tragic junkies. Instead, it’s just a very human look at two young people in love.
“It was pretty important, man, because unlike the interviews Kurt sat for with, like, MTV, that footage was either shot by Courtney or Kurt or one of their closest friends,” Morgen says of the home movies in which Love and Cobain crack jokes, play games, make fun of people like Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell, and otherwise seem like a couple of people who just like each other a lot. And as Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck nears, and then tips past, the two-hour mark, all of that combines with the animated journal excerpts, the sound collages, the performance footage, the interviews with friends and family and old girlfriends and more, to offer a glimpse of Cobain that’s as truly unfiltered as it gets. It’s unfiltered by an interviewer, and even by his own ideas about himself as an artist. Just footage never intended to be seen of Cobain at home with someone he loved.
“It was a representation of Kurt that I had not seen in any of the other materials, and it was essential to revealing his more gentle side, his romanticism, his humor,” Morgen says. “In some of that bathroom banter between him and Courtney, it feels like they’re almost like Lucy and Ricky. There was an intimacy to it.” There’s an intimacy to the film itself, and it’s hard-earned, and unlike any glimpse of Cobain we’ve been granted before.