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Sunday 21 January 2018

Cobain: Montage of Heck and other superior rock docs

David Bowie
David Bowie
Sex Pistols
James Murphy LCD Soundsystem
Bob Dylan
Le Galaxie
Le Galaxie - Le Club
John Meagher

John Meagher

If you're a Nirvana fan, you've got to see Cobain: Montage of Heck. If you're not a Nirvana fan, you really should see it anyway. This feature-length documentary on grunge's most iconic figure remains in selected cinemas for the best part of a week and its powerful story will stay with you for a long time.

I thought I knew most of what there is to know about Kurt Cobain, but this movie offers fresh insights into the man, the music and the myth. Tracking his troubled life from childhood in a grim Washington logging town to his death by his own hand at just 27, it reverberates in the way the very best rock documentaries do.

The film was made by Brett Morgen, who's probably best known for an illuminating documentary on Hollywood mogul Robert Evans (The Kid Stays in the Picture, also the title of Evans's swashbuckling biography). Montage of Heck - which is named after a mix-tape Cobain put together in the mid-80s - was authorised by his estate. That means searching interviews with his widow Courtney Love, Nirvana bandmate Krist Novoselic, his parents Jenny and Don and a rather sweet ex-girlfriend, Tracy.

Cobain's daughter, Frances Bean, who was still a toddler when he died, is an executive producer on the film, but is not among the talking heads.

Interestingly, Nirvana's third member, Dave Grohl - who will headline Slane next month with Foo Fighters - does not take part, although Morgen has pointed out that he did get to interview him after the film had been edited and Grohl's contribution may make a future cut. (So much for the conspiracies that he did not want to be involved in a project sanctioned by Courtney Love.)

The film is really good when looking at Nirvana's sudden elevation to rock's front row, but it's even more compelling when examining its frontman's early life. After his parents' acrimonious divorce, he found himself shunted from one extended family member to the next. It was clearly a very disjointed upbringing and there's something quite heartbreaking about watching video footage of a pre-school Kurt, knowing what was just around the corner for him and how the final months of his life would pan out.

His teenage years were no more secure and one can sense why there's so much anger in the songs. Even in his mid-teens there was a self-destructive streak - a trait that would make his visceral compositions so compelling but would also contribute to his death at just 27.

It doesn't shirk from his copious drug-taking, although one senses that the film isn't as open as it might have been about his tempestuous relationship with Love. They had been dubbed the Sid 'n' Nancy of their generation but one can't help but feel the film offers a somewhat sanitised version of their doomed story.

Morgen was granted access to Cobain's diaries and quotations from it are used freely and effectively throughout the film. A keen doodler, Cobain might well have approved of the documentary's device in using animation to detail aspects of his life not caught on film.

There's plenty of Nirvana footage, including early studio sessions and formative shows when they were still working out who they were and what music they wanted to make. The clips give a glimpse about what a significant live entity they were and how special that fateful show in the RDS Simmonscourt might have been (he took his own life three days before, on April 5, 1994).

Since going on release a week ago, the film has been lapped up by grunge fans everywhere, and already one can confidently add it to the list of great rock documentaries.

There are no shortage of those, of course, and I especially love I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, which looked at Wilco during one of their most troubled, but creative, phases in the early 2000s, and Shut Up and Play the Hits, which fused footage from LCD Soundsystem's last ever show with the refreshingly unaffected thoughts of mainman James Murphy.

Julien Temple has made several must-see rock docs, especially his seminal study of The Sex Pistols, The Filth and the Fury, and Glastonbury - a quite gorgeous meditation on England's most fabled festival.

He's also working on a feature-length version of the Strypes film that was screened to considerable acclaim last month.

Any discussion of rock documentaries would be incomplete without mention of D. A. Pennebaker. Now aged 89, he made his reputation in 1967 with Don't Look Back, which captured Bob Dylan upsetting the folk apple-cart by going electric. And he cemented that standing six years later with Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, the memorable concert film of David Bowie playing the titular alien for the last time.

Both stand up remarkably well, as does Cracked Actor, Alan Yentob's startling BBC film of a mid-1970s drug-addled Bowie.

Listen up: Album of the week

Le Galaxie: Le Club


One of the best live bands Ireland has produced in the past 10 years, Le Galaxie have taken their time to get around to releasing album number two. And the quartet don't disappoint with a batch of bracing, dancefloor-heavy tunes that suggest Michael Pope and friends have the goods to make a significant impact outside these shores. The title track and Humanise are especially engaging while the synth-led opener Put the Chain On sounds like a love letter to the 1980s. If the vocals are decidedly flat here and there, the robust music compensates, and when they manage to get both right, such as on the rebooted version of old favourite Love System (with Elaine Mai on vocals), they're truly formidable.

Key track: 'Love System'

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