Wednesday 13 November 2019

Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck - Face to face with the man who sold the world

Kurt Cobain's private life is about to be exposed like no fan has ever seen before, thanks to a new documentary, writes Ed Power

Kurt Cobain on stage during the filming of MTV Unplugged.
Kurt Cobain on stage during the filming of MTV Unplugged.
Kurt Cobain with his wife Courtney Love and their daughter Frances Bean Cobain, and Sinead O'Connor, in 1993.

Ed Power

Kurt Cobain has never really gone away. It's 21 years since the lead singer of Nirvana took his life, seemingly pushed past breaking point by the pressures of fame. But, artistically and culturally, Cobain remains as relevant as ever. His music, raw and exhilarating, still speaks to us while his struggles with the burden of celebrity - that monster he could not control -  have a thoroughly modern chime.

Nonetheless, for all his ubiquity as rock icon, there is an unknowable quality to Cobain. We have a reasonably clear grasp of the demons that drove and ultimately did him in and the particulars of his torrid marriage to Courtney Love have been endlessly chronicled.

And yet, as a person, Cobain has always been a blank space - he is easier to conceive of as a poster on a teenager's wall than as a living, breathing individual, with hopes, dreams and frustrations.

That may be set to change, as a new documentary, debuting at Dublin Film Festival this month, brings the singer to life to a previously unimaginable degree. Granted unrestricted access to hours of home recordings by the Cobain estate, Brett Morgen's Montage of Heck has been hailed as the definitive screen biography, a feature that peels the cliches aside and goes to the heart of what made Cobain tick - and the forces that ultimately ripped this sensitive young man asunder. 

"In his public appearances and media interviews, Kurt presented himself as this miserable guy, so it's not the public's fault that they saw him as one," said Morgen recently.

"But the man is so much more endearing than the myth. And I think when audiences see this film, they're going to fall in love with him and that sort of breaks your heart.

"Because at the point where you realise how dynamic and funny and wonderful he was, how many great things about Kurt we never got to experience, you also realise that this is it."

One of the biggest revelations, to Morgen as well as to his audiences, was Cobain's ready wit. Up on his pedestal, there's a tendency to revere the singer among the foremost miserabalist of the age, a cathartic scream in human form. That is certainly the person Morgen expected as he delved into the project. He was surprised, maybe even stunned, as, grainy by grainy reel, he pieced together an altogether different portrait of the singer. 

"The public had such a limited window on who he was, through his music and media experiences," Morgen said. "As a result, in order to get to know Kurt and get beyond the myth, probably 85pc of our movie is never-before-seen or rarely seen material. That wasn't the goal of the film; that was just necessary to paint a more complete and accurate portrait of Kurt."

Cobain's appeal is easily explained. He was an extraordinary talent with an all-too vulnerable side. A tortured young apparently unable to articulate his inner-most fears, Cobain speaks to us in an era when male suicide surges towards epidemic proportions.

His struggles to reconcile public persona and private self, meanwhile, seemed to foreshadow the existential tensions of our present social media epoch. And his music, guttural, beautiful, tattered, exquisite, is simply ageless.

Listened to with 21st century sensibilities Nevermind, Nirvana's definitive record from 1991, remains powerful and articulate - a spitball of youthful angst, joyous almost in spite of itself.

Cobain was also complex and conflicted to a degree unusual among the super-famous (typically quite shallow in their pursuit of wealth and fame).  As frontman of Nirvana, Cobain was unquestionably driven - there are several accounts of him ringing up his record company demanding why the video to Nirvana's break-out anthem Smells Like Teen Spirit wasn't enjoying heavier rotation on MTV. 

Celebrity seemed to cause something within him to snap. He had plainly hated being a small town nobody from the darkest reaches of rural Washington State.

But by the time he realised the alternative -constantly snapping cameras, endless interviews and touring - was an ever worse option, it was too late. Nirvana were mega stars, Cobain's position as 'voice of a generation' set in marble.

He was, furthermore, in a spiral of heroin use. In part Cobain had turned to the drug because of a stomach condition that left him in frequent pain. But his new wife Courtney Love was also a user - she has confessed to shooting up while pregnant with their their daughter Frances Bean (now in her early 20s, and a co-producer of Montage Of Heck).

Drugs and musicians have gone together since the dawn of rock and roll; in his documentary Morgen went to lengths not to romanticise the singer's relationship with chemical dependency. 

"I do feel that Kurt's heroin use has been slightly romanticised," he said, "so there's a moment or two in the film where you see the reality of it. It's not the point of the film, but I'm optimistic that there will be certain people who see this film and decide that they'll never touch heroin. And I don't know a better legacy for Kurt than to save a life."

Of course, like all compelling stories, this one has a death. In early 1994 Cobain attempted suicide by overdosing while touring Europe. He was determined his second attempt would be more successful. 

Cobain's life story will chime with many Irish people. Certainly his small town upbringing in Aberdeen, a rainy settlement of 3,000 people, has a ring of familiarity (as it happens, his family originally hailed from Carrickmore, Tyrone).

His parents divorced when he was seven and he acted out, bullying a school mate and becoming sullen and withdrawn.

Even as an adult, the spectre of his difficult childhood seemed to haunt him - he explicitly addresses his troubled family life on songs such as Sliver and Scentless Apprentice and even when singing about ostensibly unrelated subject matter, glimpses of the frustrated young boy are discernible.  

The singer's connection to Ireland has been much commented on. In early 1991, Nirvana played two Irish dates as support to the avant-garde band Sonic Youth. With an afternoon off, Cobain spent several hours knocking around Cork City.

He subsequently explained that he felt a deep connection - Leeside's grungy aesthetic and its faintly hippy-ish counter culture, so different from the wannabe London-isms of Dublin - moved him.

"When we toured Ireland we played in Cork and the entire day I walked around in a daze," he later said.

"I'd never felt more spiritual in my life. It was the weirdest feeling and I have a friend who was with me who could testify to this. I was almost in tears the whole day. Since that tour, which was about two years ago, I've had a sense that I was from Ireland."

Several years ago Nirvana's drummer - now frontman of Slane headliners Foo Fighters - Dave Grohl tried to explain to me why the band's rise and fall had gripped the public imagination so thoroughly. He choked back the words as he spoke.

"You have to understand for me, Nirvana is more than it is for you," he says.

"It was a really personal experience. I was a kid. Our lives were lifted and then turned upside down.

"And then our hearts were broken when Kurt died. The whole thing is much more personal than the logo or the t-shirt or the iconic image."

The film will be released in Ireland on April 10.  IMC cinemas (Dun Laoeghaire, Galway, Santry, Tallaght and Carlow), Dublin IFI and Light House Dublin. Further cinemas will shortly be announced HERE

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