You may be forgiven for wondering why a feature film purporting to tell the true story about the death of Kurt Cobain contains very little information about Kurt Cobain. Soaked in Bleach, a new documentary apparently timed for release to counter the triumphant Montage of Heck, won’t tell you, for example, that Cobain constantly fantasized about his own death, or that he spent almost all of his late childhood begging for friends and family to accept him, or about the self-destructive nights he spent sleeping off overdoses and vomiting up blood and bile. You will learn about one overdose, which the director writes off as an “accident” (as if that makes the drug abuse any more comprehensible or less predictive of future intent), and you will learn that Cobain wasn’t actually depressed, which should come as a surprise except that you will only hear it from people who knew Cobain tangentially and only at the periods in his life when he was happiest.
You will learn quite a bit about Tom Grant, a private investigator from Los Angeles who was hired by Courtney Love to track down Kurt Cobain in the last days of Cobain’s life, but even here the facts are only what he wants you to know. Grant doesn’t discuss any of his previous cases, which would be helpful in assessing the accuracy of his charges. To illustrate his wholesome upbringing, a strange, unrelated clip from a 1962 car-safety video plays over a discussion of Grant’s childhood. Grant says, at one point, that the death of Kurt Cobain “changed my life forever.” We will soon find out what he means. But first, the director will cut to images of Kurt Cobain set to the poorest royalty-free imitation of grunge rock you’ll ever hear.
Soaked in Bleach is a story about a private investigator, but it is also a story about a seductress, a drug-abuser, a ditz, and a lesbian. In the re-enactment, witness how the camera lingers on a kiss Courtney Love shares with a woman living in her opium den of a hotel room. It’s the scene when Grant first begins to have suspicions of his client, as if indicting Love for a taste of bi-curiosity. “It’s my drug dealer,” the Courtney Love re-enactment announces, in a line that would get a Law & Order scribe booted from the writer’s room, delivered by an actress who clearly missed the table reading. (The character is so sultry, you halfway expect her to start coming on to Grant himself.) If she’s so into making out with girls, what else might she be capable of?
Well, murder, apparently. Soaked in Bleach, whose title is taken from a “Come as You Are” lyric but refers to destroying DNA evidence, is the cinematic culmination of Tom Grant’s decades-long insistence that Courtney Love had Kurt Cobain killed. He has documented the “evidence” on various websites, including in a free 138-page manual complete with the kinds of bold, large-typed words more familiar to 9/11 Truthers and second-gunmanists: the website literally advertises the manual as containing information “THEY DON’T WANT YOU TO SEE OR HEAR!” In the film, Grant anticipates the conspiracy theorist charge, and wants to make it unmistakable just how insulted he is by this insinuation.
But the film does little to back him up. One critical scene fixates on where the cartridge shell released by Cobain’s shotgun landed, which is essentially Soaked in Bleach’s “back, and to the left” moment. A cartoon of a small teenager who does not resemble Kurt Cobain but is drawn wearing Kurt Cobain’s clothes is shown slumping back several times as the cartridge lands to his left, which the film explains would only have been possible if the gun had spun around in his hand, something it claims would have been impossible because the trauma would have literally caused a death grip to lock the barrel in place. Therefore, the logic goes, the shotgun must have been placed there after the fact, and whoever did so introduced an error into the tableau.
It isn’t clear how Grant believes this will help his case, because all it proves is that when a shotgun is fired at close range in a confined space, the resulting forensic case is going to produce a variety of known unknowns. Most importantly, it would be incomprehensible to a private investigator who never visited the crime scene, and who, by his own admission, has only the incident reports and photographs released by the Seattle Police Department at his disposal. For the record, the SPD officially calls Cobain’s death a suicide.
Later, Grant relies on the SPD for another of his more questionable claims. In the toxicology report released in the days after Cobain’s death, it was revealed that Kurt Cobain had 1.52 mg of heroin per liter in his blood, a statistic that when reported almost always appears alongside the claim that this is “three times the lethal dose.” (Lethal dose for whom? Certainly not an addict with a $500-a-day habit.) This is repeated in the film, alongside an attractive graphic of a body filling up with heroin and splitting into three bodies to accommodate the oversized injection. In order to demonstrate that Cobain’s death was not a suicide, Grant offers as evidence perhaps the most archetypal way that rockstars die at their own hands.
Grant’s implication is that whoever killed Cobain first injected him with enough heroin to make it look twice as much like a suicide. Unfortunately for whomever this was, as with the errant shell casing, this person was not operating on Grant’s level of logic, and now he’s caught them. We are told by the experts brought on for interviews that, if the heroin did not kill Cobain itself, it would at least have rendered him too incapacitated to pull the trigger on the shotgun. But, per Grant’s own research, Cobain had approximately 240 mg of heroin in his system, which, far from being enough to kill or incapacitate a heavy user, is less than half of the average amount used by addicts in a Swiss national cohort study.
To believe Grant’s narrative, one must first completely misunderstand Kurt Cobain himself, and virtually almost all of the people Grant brings on to speak to the facts of the case do so. Particularly chilling is his insistence that Cobain’s previous suicide attempt, one month earlier in Rome, was actually an accident, an assertion which hinges on the testimony of the doctor who treated Cobain… and Courtney Love, whose alleged mendacity has been, up to that point, at the center of the documentary.
Here are the facts surrounding Cobain’s suicide attempt in Rome: Courtney Love had come to visit him while Nirvana was on tour in Europe, and they stayed together at the Excelsior Hotel in Rome. He was in a coma when Love found him early that morning, having overdosed on a mixture of alcohol and Rohypnol, and was revived the next day after twenty hours without consciousness. That much is not in dispute. Where one school of thought diverges from the other is in the content of the note that Cobain left behind at the Excelsior, which Love eventually tells Grant she burned in order to protect herself from liability. It may seem strange that Courtney Love, whom Soaked in Bleach is supposed to indict, is also Grant’s best witness, but the only means by which Grant has access to the note is through Love’s recollection, and best way to assign a motive is through the content of that note.
So Grant takes it as face value when we are told that the note merely discussed divorce. This is repeated several times throughout the documentary, eventually in conjunction with the revelation that Cobain had asked his lawyer (a woman named Rosemary Carroll, who Grant recorded against her objections) to draw him up a new will that excluded Love from his estate. Grant can barely contain himself as he pieces everything together: Love had Cobain killed to inherit his wealth before he could disinherit her forever.
It is true that the “Rome note” mentioned divorce. But if Grant is to trust Love on that single word, we should also be able to trust her on the rest of the note, which she related to Spin in 1995: “[H]e’s talking about how I’m not in love with him anymore, and he can’t go through another divorce [referring to his parents]. And then the next page is like how we’re destined to be together, and how he knows how much I love him, and please don’t take this personally, and how Dr. Baker [a senior psychotherapist at Canyon Ranch, a health and wellness resort the couple attended] said that like Hamlet, he had to choose life or death, and that he’s choosing death.” Cobain was not saying that he would divorce her, but that he wouldn’t, because he would be dead. Only Tom Grant can learn about this suicide note and come to the conclusion, which he voices after the Rome segment ends, that Cobain was never depressed. Never depressed, yet asking for more heroin just one day after leaving the hospital, something you won’t hear from Grant. Never depressed, yet somehow forever waging war against his own body.
Fortunately, by this point in Soaked in Bleach, Grant has already tipped his hand, or otherwise takes the hazardous gambit that his audience doesn’t know what the word “will” means, or that they believe it has something to do with divorce. Simply by way of refuting Grant, one is obliged to point out that it is highly unusual for a 27-year-old man to have a will in the first place, unless he knew or suspected that he was going to die. That was in late March, just weeks after the “accident” in Rome. One day earlier, Cobain overdosed at the Marco Polo Motel in Seattle, and was revived by his friend Rene Navarette. (Everett True reports that it took twenty minutes to bring Cobain back to life.) Several days after that, Cobain overdosed again, this time alone in the backseat of a car. He woke up the next morning.
In one sense, this series of overdoses were accidents after all, just not in the way Grant believes. By early April, Cobain would inject himself with an apparently lethal dosage of heroin, seeking to make sure that this fourth overdose in as many weeks would not, finally, turn out to be an accident. And just to make sure his body complied, he would have his shotgun.
At one moment in the film, Grant dismisses Cobain’s lifelong stomach illness as an implausible justification for his suicide, explaining that by that time in his life, the debilitating pain had disappeared. The director cuts to a clip of Cobain giving an interview in which he claims that he’s finally found some medicine that works; again, Grant takes his words at face value, seeming not to realize that Cobain was talking about heroin. Such a fundamental misreading of Cobain is only possible if your audience is unfamiliar with how Kurt Cobain actually talked about himself, which was insouciant, deadpan, and sarcastic enough to cut. If Grant had actually spent some time getting to know the subject whose suicide note he creepily subjected to the care of several forensic analysts, he would know just how closely Cobain equated divorce with death. Or perhaps he could have just watched Montage of Heck, which, for all its flaws, actually does the heavy lifting of establishing that connection.
But Tom Grant has a career to promote, and in the private investigations business, this apparently means delineating a hero and a villain. This means resurrecting the same few seconds-long excerpts of Courtney Love coming across churlishly in his audio recordings, and this means laughably claiming that, all along, he’s really just been concerned for the copycat suicides that followed in the wake of Cobain’s death. If he’s going to speak for these young souls, he might want to examine them more closely. These were children who’d been dealt an unimaginably sad hand in life. How else could Kurt Cobain have reached them so deeply?