I Can’t Stop Thinking About ‘Montage of Heck’ and Kurt Cobain
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I should preface this by saying it has nothing to do with the Lower East Side.
Instead, let’s travel back in time to a small town in Massachusetts comprised mostly of cranberry bogs and pizza joints. It was April 10, 1994. On that particular Sunday, I found myself waiting for youth group to start at the Methodist church my parents attended. My stomach was filled with jittery anticipation; just having turned thirteen a few weeks prior, it was my first Sunday among the older kids. I vividly remember the accordion partition walls separating the classes, the boxy burnt orange and mustard-colored plastic chairs, the smell of coffee and pastries emanating from the nearby kitchen for post-service fellowship. The youth leader walked in slowly, took his place in front of the class, and opened with, “Today, we are going to talk about the death of Kurt Cobain.”
My initial reaction was shock – it was a bold topic, given the town and the venue. Cobain’s suicide, and the dialogue it sparked during that 45 minutes, was new to me. I can’t remember if I had heard about it before that Sunday (he passed five days prior), and, up until then, I had only attributed death to accidents, old age, or villainous acts. The discussion involved analyzing the pressures of being a celebrity, “what comes next after you’ve achieved inherent success?” and how success weaves its way through the psychosis of mortality. It was a heavy conversation, one that I couldn’t quite wrap my head around, but there was one certainty: Kurt Cobain – the voice of an angst-fueled, misunderstood generation – had killed himself, and the kids were reeling.
Being thirteen and running with the older neighborhood kids, I had heard plenty of Nirvana. After a trip to the record store, I successfully sneaked Nevermind past my strict parents, and secretly listened to it at bedtime on my Discman. I later indefinitely borrowed In Utero from the boy next door, and cautiously blasted it on my stereo when my parents weren’t around. More recently, I’ve read my share of articles about Kurt and Courtney, clicked on slideshows of Cobain’s post-mortem personal effects. I’m by no means a die-hard fan, but the albums were always in regular rotation, and to this day resonate.
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So when HBO recently aired Montage of Heck, I had to check it out. The documentary sheds light on the intimate beginnings of Kurt Cobain, tracing a path through his personal life up until his death. I’ve never obsessively researched Cobain’s private life, nor the controversial details or conspiracy theories surrounding the explanations of why he chose to do what he did. I can’t speak to how much new information was presented in the documentary. But I can say it’s well done and worth watching.
The 132-minute film navigates the inner psyche of Cobain by way of family interviews, personal notebooks packed with a spectrum of musings, animated reenactments, concert footage, and Kurt’s unfledged drawings splashed throughout. It’s a compelling film, one that not only exposes the classic irony of being the voice of a generation while never wanting or intending to be, but one that also humanizes someone who is often casually dismissed as a “depressed, drug riddled celebrity.” It graphically explores his life experience as one rooted in turmoil by deep-seeded, polarizing emotions.
Brett Morgen’s documentary illuminates Cobain’s broken home, the toll it took on him, and the never-ending quest he endured in trying to fill its void for the rest of his life. It’s clear that Kurt was looking for something absolute – a love that would not waver. He looked for this in his extended family, his friends, his band, his intimate relationships, and finally, in his newly formed family. And when he couldn’t find it, he’d seek solace in things like heroin.
The most sobering moments are the raw footage of Courtney and Kurt, high and playing with baby Frances. A lot of reviews have mentioned how endearing it is to see Cobain as the loving father figure, but it arguably begets melancholy over anything heartwarming. Here’s a man who wanted a family of his own, to secure an unconditional love, but his psychological struggles and drug addictions ultimately triumphed.
It’s now just over twenty years since Kurt Cobain passed and Nirvana began its unintentional prophetic ascent towards its namesake. Twenty years, and the question of “what comes next” is still as relevant in today’s discussions as it was back in that little Methodist church in 1994. Nirvana has undeniably reached a state of musical immortality; tracks are still played ad nauseam on the radio, the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” music video is a chart topper time and time again. But how do we measure success? Is it success if you can’t do something palpable with it? Is it success if you can’t bask in it? Is it success if you never wanted it in the first place? Can you create love? And what’s next? These are the unsettling questions that fester after watching the documentary.
Regardless of how you feel about Nirvana or the life of Kurt Cobain, Montage of Heck is a captivating piece, and definitely worth checking out.