Embracing the Myth of Kurt Cobain

Montage of Heck offers the most intimate portrait possible of the Nirvana singer. That still doesn't mean you can understand him.

Wendy O'Connor/courtesy of HBO

One of the most shocking parts of watching Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck is finding out that the god of grunge was once a really cute kid. Director Brett Morgen peppers his documentary with Super 8 clips in which the future Nirvana singer can be seen as an infant, toddler, and grade-schooler, blowing out birthday candles, carrying around a stuffed panda, and sending kisses to the camera. Towheaded and cheery-eyed, wearing tiny suit jackets and cardigans, lil Cobain could have been in a Normal Rockwell painting. That he was the iconic all-America boy helps explain his later rebellion, making him an avatar for how traditional domestic life begat counterculture, and …

... oh, wait. I’m mythologizing, aren’t I? Assuming causes and effects that can’t ever be known, turning a human being into an abstraction: Montage of Heck, in some theaters now and airing on HBO on May 4, was created specifically to ward against this sort of thing. In 2007, Courtney Love gave Morgen access to a trove of previously unexamined recordings, notes, and artwork relating to her late husband, with one bit of instruction that would take the director eight years to carry out. “It was time to examine this person and humanize him and decanonize these values that he allegedly stood for—the lack of ambition and these ridiculous myths that had been built up around him,” Love told The New York Times.

Cobain’s life has been chronicled in scores of books and documentaries, but Montage of Heck feels fresh in the scope of material it includes, the way it's presented, and the things it emphasizes. Spanning the period from when his parents met through a month before his suicide, it is, true to its name, a montage: childhood drawings paired with choral interpretations of Nirvana songs segue into interviews with family members, into Cobain’s disturbing art videos, into voiceovers from Cobain himself, into concerts, into shopping lists, into lyrics sheets, into home movies, into news clips. Viewers come to know him as a private person more than as a public figure, with lots of time spent on his adolescence, his romances, and his interactions with Love and their daughter Frances Bean.

As an effort to "decanonize," it succeeds at slaying some canards. The idea of Cobain as the consummate slacker, for example, seems nuts given the voracious work ethic and ambition on display. He was unemployed while living with girlfriend Tracy Marander, but she describes regularly returning from a day of work to find Cobain had made and hung a painting, or drawn a comic strip, or written a song. Montage of Heck also undermines some fans' belief that Cobain was manipulated to his doom by Love; in home videos, their rapport appears warm and sensitive, and he seems of sound mind and sure about exactly who he's in love with. “You’re already the most hated woman in America," he taunts as he shaves his face in their apartment bathroom while she flashes the camera. "You and Rosanne are tied."

But it’s not quite right to say that Montage of Heck is anti-mythologizing. It’s almost impossible to imagine how it could be. The movie, for the most part, reinforces the common Cobain narrative: genius misfit clashes with parents and society, starts a band, conquers the world, gets hooked on heroin, hates fame, kills himself. At every turn, we’re reminded that this was Cobain’s own narrative; in journals, in lyrics, and in interactions with friends, he talked about not only the desire for suicide but the reasons for it, including feeling like a phony regarding his acclaim, and feeling guilty that he didn't enjoy his success. He vehemently rejected the “voice of a generation” tag placed on him, but the film also makes clear that the popular understanding of the messages in his music—rage at conservative social mores, expressions of self-loathing, odes to screwed-up intimacy—is correct.

In some ways, Montage of Heck does cut Cobain down to human size. The defining traumas of his early life, we see, were his parents’ divorce, his father's frostiness, and his peers' taunts—all vivid and scarring for him, but banal as far as legend-making material goes. At one point, Cobain talks about loving the movie Over the Edge, and Morgen treats viewers to an excerpt of the film in which kids lock their parents in school and start a riot. The message is the same as the one that famously opens In Utero: On some level, Cobain was caught up in nothing more than classic, teenage angst.

But the fact that his concerns were so ordinary just makes his trajectory, his talents, and his wild, magnetic personality, all the more extraordinary. In the opening moments of the film, his sister says she’s grateful that she didn’t get that “genius brain” of his. She’s right to call him a genius—Montage of Heck, in addition to everything else, reminds of how electrifying Nirvana's music was—and she’s also right to see his psychic makeup as a burden. Even after getting such an in-depth portrait of his life and character, the depths of Cobain's mounting despair and disaffection feels, toward the end of the film, inexplicable, awful, and unrelatable. Cobain and the world knew he was hurtling toward destruction—“I feel like people want me to die because it would be the classic rock and roll story,” he mutters at one point—and either he chose to embrace that fate or he had no choice at all. It's the kind of outcome that can't fully be understood, which is to say it's the kind of outcome that people have always needed myths to help explain.