These Moments From Montage Of Heck Will Surprise Nirvana Fans

Montage of Heck, the indie movie making headlines since its Sundance premiere, is finally airing for the masses on May 4 at 9 p.m. EDT on HBO. Written and directed by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Brett Morgen, this is the first rock doc about Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain that involves the collaboration of those closest to him, including his family and ex-bandmate Krist Novoselic. Even despite one glaring omission — the absence of drummer Dave Grohl due to a tight film festival deadline — the movie is essential viewing. Here’s why.

The release of another Cobain film more than 20 years following his death lands it in a competitive market, to say the least. In the past two decades, there have been many controversial depictions of the musician’s life, including Kurt and Courtney, which paints Cobain’s wife Courtney Love as a toxic influence, and Soaked in Bleach, which drums up murder allegations. Morgen’s film, created, he says, at the suggestion of Love (yes, really), is a crucial addition for even the most well-versed Nirvana fan.

All the hypothesizing over the grunge god’s inner workings and potential enemies was starting to feel, at least to this fiercely protective Cobain devotee, over-idealizing (not to mention exhausting). Children of the '90s longed for something like Heck, which stirs up pure emotions that mirror the way we felt when we first listened to his music, rather than asking us to reminisce about a tragic figure on the big screen. Adding to the portrayal of Cobain on a human level: His daughter, Frances Bean Cobain, served as executive producer.

During Heck, we hear about Cobain's protectiveness of his work and reputation. Interview footage of Novoselic reveals Cobain's sensitivity to attacks on Nirvana’s authenticity in the music scene, and Cobain channeling this pain to his gut. When a magazine compared their sound to Lynyrd Skynyrd without the flares, Novoselic says, “Kurt was hurt…Kurt hated being humiliated, he hated it, he hated it. If he ever thought he was being humiliated then you would see the rage come out.”

A diplomatic, reflective Novoselic also talks about Cobain’s desire to be a family man, stating that, with Love, “Kurt wanted to build a home," after growing up with rejection, lack of understanding, and instability in his own family. These observations help the viewer absorb Cobain’s realness — not just his hyper-documented state of celebrity or the exploitation of his perceived difference. In tandem, relatability and contradictions are present in the way Cobain himself writes and speaks of his life, lending the story more depth than the typical biopic.

One of the big things Heck has going for it is the “unfettered” access Morgen says he was given to Cobain’s belongings — arrangements a cynic might suggest were pre-curated. Either way, we’ll take it, because songs we haven’t heard before play throughout the film, a superfan jackpot for those of us who had lost hope of ever experiencing Cobain’s unreleased work. There’s new material, some very rough cuts, un-produced familiar songs, and even a series of noises sans vocals — an album is slated for release this summer.

The intimacy also explodes with loads of unfiltered journal entries, imaginative drawings, photos and lyrics in process. Home video and sound recordings that span his life are intertwined with the interview footage of Novoselic, Cobain’s mother, father, stepmother, sister, former girlfriend, and, of course, Love. Love appears relatively healthy but combative at times when prompted to speak about how their life together has been read by the public. But, she shows her connection to Cobain both in personal proclamation and in home videos. At one point, Love shocks (as she usually does) by stating her late husband swallowed “67 Rohypnols and ended up in a coma” at the thought of her possible infidelity.  

Shown in journal excerpts, Cobain writes of self-medicating with heroin to relieve stomach pain so severe that it affected his ability to function normally. It's a struggle much has been said about, but not with his first-person, clear-as-day admission of drug use. In one passage he says, "Tried heroin for the first time in 1987 in Aberdeen and proceeded to use it about 10 more times from '87 to '90.” His then-girlfriend, Tracy Marander, says she had no knowledge of this. Cobain’s physical suffering was married with fear of burning out. He writes, “For five years every single day an ongoing stomach ailment had literally taken me to the point of wanting to kill myself,” but also states in an interview, “I’m always afraid that if I lost my stomach problem I would be less creative.”

Thankfully, Montage of Heck is above dramatizing what avid Nirvana fans have long known of Cobain, skirts his tensions with bands like Pearl Jam, and avoids worshipping him. There’s also no attempt to provoke hysteria (though there is a book for sale). Drawing on the musician's own artwork and words helps tell the story without muddying things up through reductive inference. All in all, this is a movie that accomplishes something rare — it feels like it's told by Cobain himself. 
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