About a half hour into Brett Morgen’s new documentary Montage of Heck, the camera lingers on a note written in the slanted, scratchy handwriting of a teenage Kurt Cobain. It’s intended for his first girlfriend, Tracy Marander, with whom he lived for a little while in Olympia, Washington, while he was first putting together a band he briefly thought of calling Man Bug or Fecal Matter before finally settling on Nirvana. “Don’t read my diary when I’m gone,” the note says. Then, just below it, in the same script: “When you wake up, please read my diary. Look through my things, and figure me out.” What are we to make of this contradiction? What is its tone? Sarcastic? Playful? Needy? Marander hints that it might be all of the above, but the only person who can really tell us for sure has been gone now for 21 years.
This note takes on an eerie double meaning as soon as Morgen films it, though; in that moment, you almost get this sense that Cobain is communing directly with the filmmaker — or even you, the viewer, who has purchased a ticket to the film and may or may not have also shelled out $25 a decade ago to buy Cobain’s published journals. In the works since 2007 (when Courtney Love gave the director access to a private storage unit of Cobain’s belongings, including 108 never-before-heard self-recorded cassette tapes), the impressionistic, collagelike Montage of Heck is the result of Morgen’s trip through Cobain’s archives — seven years of looking through his things and trying his best to figure him out.
In the two decades since his suicide, a small cottage industry has developed that mythologizes Cobain’s despair and plumbs every last corner of his archives for insight into his life and death. Beyond the journals — and the perennially reprinted T-shirts and dorm-room posters — there have been countless Nirvana-related books (the most respected and authoritative of which is Charles Cross’s 2002 tome Heavier Than Heaven), and a few films that purposely played fast and loose with the truth (the provocatively pulpy Kurt & Courtney, Gus Van Sant’s fictionalized fever-dream Last Days). Montage of Heck is the first documentary claiming to tell some approximation of the actual story, and the first one to bear that dubious adjective “authorized.” In a scene that Morgen includes with what I’m sure is at least a pinch of irony, we’re reminded of what Cobain and his widow Courtney Love thought of the writers who previously sought to tell some version of the story without permission: “You have absolutely no fucking idea what you’re doing,” Cobain wrote in 1993 to Britt Collins, who was attempting to write an ill-fated book called Nirvana: Flower Sniffin’, Kitty Pettin’, Baby Kissin’ Corporate Rock Whores. “I will make your life a living hell on earth because we will sue the shit out of you.”
With the cooperation of Love and daughter Frances Bean Cobain (who recently admitted that she’s not a Nirvana fan, with a sort of free-spirited candor that probably would have made her dad proud), Morgen has certainly uncovered a treasure trove of Cobain ephemera. And what’s most striking about Montage of Heck is just how much of his short life Cobain actually wrote down — and recorded and drew and, most important, preserved. Cobain saved everything, apparently, and some of the scrawled-down fragments that Morgen uncovers and artfully animates into the film feel almost too good to be true. Consider that this list actually exists:
Smells Like Teen Spirit
1. School Gym
2. Cast of a Hundred Students, 1 custodian
3. Cheerleader outfits with Anarchy A on chest
4. Access to abandoned mall
5. lots of fake jewelry
6. mercedes benz
The Cobain of Montage of Heck comes off as someone with a relentless drive for self-expression, but also for even everyday forms of self-documentation. Those 108 storage-unit tapes, as it turns out, are not dozens of hours of unreleased Nirvana demos, but instead noisy sonic collages that feature fragments of found sound interspersed with recorded phone calls and occasional bits of Cobain telling — as if to a phantom therapist — stories of formative childhood memories. Who were these tapes intended for, exactly? (Is this how artfully lonely teenagers spent their evenings before Tumblr?) They’re so intimate that it feels a little uncomfortable to be listening to them, but in a strange way, it also feels like Cobain wanted someone to stumble upon them, too. They ooze with this youthful desire to be heard, which Cobain never had the privilege of outgrowing. Again, an unresolvable tension emerges between Don’t read my diary and Look through my things, figure me out. As devotees of the eternally 27-year-old Cobain know all too well, this contradiction is at the center of almost everything he did — and everything he left behind.
Morgen — who’s best known for the similarly poetic, memoirish Robert Evans doc The Kid Stays in the Picture — tells Cobain’s story in the closest possible approximation to his subject’s aesthetic. He animates Cobain’s dark doodles with twitches and blood spurts, and through vintage anatomy-class B-roll, draws a (literally) visceral connection between the singer’s chronic stomach pain and the fury of his most guttural screams. (“I would give up anything to have good health,” Cobain says at one point, but in the next breath, he takes it back, admitting that his stomach pain “helps [him] create.”) It works most of the time, but there are certainly times when Morgen’s heavy stylization becomes overwrought. There were a few too-earnest moments on the soundtrack — a plinking lullaby rendition of “All Apologies” accompanying Cobain’s early home movies; an operatic choir arrangement of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” that overdramatizes the band’s sudden rise to fame — during which I could easily imagine Cobain rolling his eyes.
“THE MOST INTIMATE ROCK DOC EVER,” proclaims the Rolling Stone pull-quote on Montage of Heck’s DVD screener, but it’s that very feeling of familiarity between film and subject that left me feeling a little uneasy. Something about Montage of Heck’s conjured, artfully crafted intimacy tricks us into thinking we know Cobain better than we actually do — which tricks us into thinking we can finally make some kind of neat, cause-and-effect sense of his death.
While watching the film, I kept thinking about The Silent Woman, Janet Malcolm’s great book about Sylvia Plath and the problems with biographies that purport to speak for the mythologized dead. In an early chapter, she reminds us that the term authorized, while it seems to bear some sort of mark of absolute truth, really just means that the biographer was working with a certain degree of cooperation with the deceased’s family — helping put their particular, sanctioned version of him out into the world. It’s worth remembering that there are other versions out there, too. Rather egregiously, Morgen’s film contains no interview footage of Dave Grohl (and almost too much Krist Novoselic), and though he’s said recently that this was his stylistic choice, it’s hard to believe that this has nothing to do with Courtney Love. (If you want Grohl’s side of the story, look no further than the Seattle episode of his series Sonic Highways, which — touché — egregiously excludes any mention of Courtney Love.) Montage of Heck can’t possibly shoot from all the angles; it can’t possibly represent every version of its endlessly prismatic subject. The truest version of Kurt Cobain is somewhere in the spaces between the millions of words that have been written about him, at once embarrassed and deeply delighted that we’re still rifling through his diaries, trying to figure him out.