Written by El Puerquito Magnifico
Kurt Cobain About A Son, directed by AJ Schnack, offers a very unique and compelling look at the life of this often-misunderstood icon. The film, which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2006 and was nominated for a 2007 Independent Spirit Award, is being released on DVD to coincide with what would’ve been Cobain’s 41st birthday.
I was very impressed with the level of intimacy this movie was able to achieve. It isn’t simply a documentary about Cobain’s life, or a few snippets from various interviews pieced together with some photographs of Nirvana in their heyday. It’s also not one of those “dead rock star” movies that attempts to deify the subject; Cobain is shown warts and all. The entire narrative of the film is Kurt’s own voice, telling his own story. Culled from over 25 hours of taped conversations recorded by journalist Michael Azerrad for his book Come As You Are: The Story Of Nirvana, Kurt fills us in on various defining moments in his life, from his beginnings in Aberdeen, Washington, to the dizzying heights of fame.
He goes into detail about his childhood, idyllic until the age of eight, then tumultuous after the divorce of his parents. He talks about being an outcast in high school, an artistic kid living in a small redneck town. He discusses rebelling just for the sake of rebelling, getting his first guitar, desperately trying to start a band, and finally making that dream happen. There’s a lot of talk about being a celebrity and the loss of privacy that accompanies it. Wanting to be a big rock star, and then wishing to God he could escape the spotlight. You basically feel like you’re sitting in your living room listening to the guy talk to you for nearly two hours about everything under the sun.
But it’s more than just that. The interviews are played over images from the three Washington cities that played major roles in Cobain’s life: Aberdeen, Olympia, and, of course, Seattle. A variety of shots from those locations, coupled with portraits of individuals who live there, give the viewer a real sense of each city’s personality. It creates a much more complete picture of each location, something an interview or photomontage on its own could not accomplish.
Then there’s the music. Obviously, you can’t tell a story about a musician without featuring some music. I don’t believe I heard a single Nirvana song throughout the entire movie. Instead, we are treated to 20 different artists who were influences on Cobain including Queen, The Melvins, David Bowie, R.E.M., Scratch Acid, The Vaselines, and oh so many more. It’s incredible, because you’ve got Kurt Cobain telling you a story about something that happened to him in Olympia, accompanied by scenes from that very city, and the music you’re hearing is the same stuff he was listening to at the time. It’s an interesting way to show a complete picture of the man, and I think it succeeds very well. At the risk of sounding cliché, it really gives us a look at life through Kurt Cobain’s eyes.
Beyond being artistically impressive, I think what I really liked about this movie was that it didn’t go out of its way to put Cobain on a pedestal or make him out to be larger than life. In fact, they do just the opposite. The focus is on Kurt Cobain, the man, rather than Kurt Cobain, the big rock god who changed the landscape of popular music. There were plenty of instances where I found myself empathizing with Cobain, especially when he recounted stories from his high-school era, but there were also a number of times when he came across as a whiny jerk, and kind of unlikable. It showed remarkable candor, and I applaud the filmmakers for this approach. At this point, 15 years after his death, the real Kurt Cobain is running the risk of getting lost inside the icon, and this movie goes a long way to rectify that. It’s a very honest and respectful tribute.
The DVD features a couple of brief interviews with the director, AJ Schnack; Michael Azerrad, the journalist who conducted the interviews with Cobain; as well as Steve Fisk and Benjamin Gibbard, the gentlemen who worked on the score. This featurette gives a nice little bit of insight to the thought processes behind the making of this film. There’s also commentary from Schnak on selected scenes, and scene-to-scene comparisons from the scouting video and the actual movie.