There has perhaps been no film more anticipated for wide release in stores this year than Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck. Filmed as an HBO documentary by well respected director Brett Morgen, it premiered at the annual Sundance Film Festival this past January and then had a small run at theaters in the U.K. and U.S. before airing on the premium cable channel to rave reviews in early May. Six months later, it is finally available to buy in high definition Blu-ray and DVD, alongside the almost as buzzed about companion soundtrack (on digital, CD, and vinyl editions).
As far as music documentaries are concerned, it doesn’t get much more intimate and straight-forward than this one. No sensationalism, gossip, or conspiracy theories. Just the good, bad and the ugly side of Cobain’s life is presented, along with retrospective thoughts from his mother Wendy, sister Kim, father Don, step-mom Jenny, ex-girlfriend Tracy Marander, bandmate Krist Novoselic, and wife Courtney Love.
You hear about and see – via exclusive family/band videos – through their eyes how Cobain grew up in Aberdeen, Washington and then became the biggest rock star in the world and how he dealt with it. And the coolest part of this presentation is the animated sketches (courtesy of Stefan Nadelman and Hisko Hulsing) of Cobain’s childhood stories and of numerous pieces of Cobain’s art – it practically brings his drawings to life. Best of all, this documentary pretty clearly tells Cobain’s story without judgment or editorializing by outsiders – this film had the full support of Cobain’s loved ones.
This is a movie that will make you laugh – Cobain doing his best Dana Carvey impression in a blonde Garth wig saying “Party on Wayne!” before heading on stage in a wheelchair – and it will make you tear up a bit, with all the incredible private footage of him as a happy little toddler and later video of him playing with his own infant daughter Frances Bean. And of course, the disturbing art and violent/depressed journal writings shown in the movie pretty much speak for themselves.
Dolby True HD does as fine a job as possible on this Blu-ray disc to get old late ’60s-’80s footage to look clear, and the sound of all the Nirvana/solo Cobain clips featured is top quality. This isn’t a concert film though, so there’s no real need to worry too much about premium video quality.
What matters is that you get closer to understanding how this late legend lived his way too short life of 27 years. That is where this three-hour film – 2 1/2 hours in the main and over 40 essential minutes of bonus interviews – succeeds the most. Getting into more detail would spoil it for you but in essence, you’ll learn more how (broken) family issues and peer pressure at school shaped future events, along with how driven he was to succeed “to live a comfortable life” despite his ills (physical and mental).
His and by extension Nirvana’s rather miraculous success in the early ’90s changed the cultural landscape for an entire generation. Montage of Heck will make you appreciate how remarkable it really was.
Mr. Morgen has said that this collection of rare 31 tracks “will feel like you’re kind of hanging out with Kurt Cobain on a hot summer day in Olympia, Washington as he fiddles about.” That’s the most realistic way to market them, as these recordings are in large part short experiments, sound collages (“Montage of Heck”), and solo (guitar/bass) demos/sketches, many of which were captured on (4-track) tape when Cobain was living with Marander around 1988. As a whole, this compilation is an unprecedentedly insightful window into Cobain’s creative world.
The soundtrack will make the most sense to you if you wait until after you have seen the film first, which featured several of these tracks as background music to certain scenes and eras of the late icon’s life. For example, the autobiographical spoken word track “Aberdeen” is played over an animated sketch of a teenage Cobain in the movie, while the much talked about solo acoustic Beatles cover “And I Love Her” is heard during his happiest days with Love.
Some other worthy highlights include the heavy electric guitar demo “What More Can I Say” (one of the few truly previously unreleased tracks on this album that sounds like it could’ve been Nirvana bound – minus the falsetto vocals), the dark and haunting acoustic number “Burn the Rain,” and the lovely, delicate and peaceful “Letters to Frances.” It’s pretty obvious where the latter is heard during the Montage movie but now, every time I see or hear about Frances Bean, I will think of this little gem.
A large chunk of these cuts, however, are the type that you will likely listen to only once or twice – appreciating them as the audio historical footnotes they are – and then move on to the ones that really grab you. “Rhesus Monkey,” for one, is just a snippet of Cobain’s fast-faced brain at work – a speedy spoken word track. The only probable purpose for it being on here is the following words he mentions in his babbling: “…swimmin’ in the pennyroyal tea.” Then there is the curiously named “Reverb Experiment,” which isn’t really that at all – more like Cobain playing with a wah-wah pedal, something he rarely did on Nirvana records. Other than that fact, it’s not much of a “song” per se.
The only thing Morgen is slightly wrong about regarding these particular songs was his recent statement to Rolling Stone that none of them have been previously available, including on bootlegs. The solo (low vocals) demo of “Sappy,” for example, was included on one of the Nirvana Outcesticide bootlegs, while the silly/cartoonish “Beans” is on the essential 2004 With the Lights Out box set (though a bit slower and shorter here). And “The Happy Guitar” is just a different name for another rare Cobain demo – more on this in the next paragraph.
Hardcore fans will want to know that “The Happy Guitar” is the new name for a rare 1988 demo on The Chosen Rejects bootleg called “Black and White Blues.” It does indeed show a rare acoustic bluesy side of Cobain. Previously, the only significant blues influence you could easily identify in the Nirvana catalog was their unforgettable Leadbelly cover from MTV Unplugged, “Where Did You Sleep Last Night.” (There’s a whole cool backstory to Cobain’s fascination with Leadbelly and the 1989 sessions he did with Mark Lanegan of the Screaming Trees that you should Google sometime if you aren’t aware and don’t have the WTLO box set.)
This documentary, whether in Blu-ray or DVD form, is an absolutely essential treasure and must-have for Cobain/Nirvana fans. The deluxe soundtrack is a little less so but should still be highly coveted for the collection of rarities it is, which will surely please Cobain completists.
It may also be perplexing to know, however, that this deluxe edition is only being sold – according to Amazon.com – as part of the overpriced super deluxe version (at least in the U.S.). The current standard CD version of the soundtrack highlights 13 songs, which is fine for the curious Cobain fan but for longtime fans, your best bet is to buy the full 31-track deluxe version digitally, which this reviewer has and is very satisfied with. No matter what version you settle on, one thing is guaranteed: You and perhaps your family will get to know Kurt Cobain the man, the musician, and his family better than you ever dreamed you could. And that’s priceless.
Key Tracks: “Letters to Frances,” “What More Can I Say,” “The Happy Guitar,” “Burn the Rain,” “And I Love Her”
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