Kurt Cobain took his life 21 years ago this month, and since then fans have struggled to find a motive and meaning behind his death. The commonly held belief is that Cobain was a victim of corporate greed and music industry capitalism following the worldwide success of his band, Nirvana. His art and soul exploited, he retreated to a small room over the garage of his newly purchased Seattle mansion, where he wrote a note to wife Courtney Love, injected a massive dose of heroin, and fired a shotgun into his head.
In doing so, Cobain inadvertently made himself a martyr for rock ’n’ rollers railing against the major label sell outs. He had seemingly lost the game of art versus commerce, and to this day he’s viewed as a case study for show-business’s effect on the sprit. “This is the story of what happens to a man who gets what he wants,” begins one notable profile of his final 48 hours alive. But director Brett Morgan’s stunning documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck offers a new take on the conventional narrative that fame drove Cobain to take his own life. Instead, it focuses on the one thing the millionaire rockstar never had—a family.
It’s a theme that begins early in the documentary. Montage of Heck offers some remarkable archival footage, including never-heard demos, words from his journals, audio diaries, and incredibly lifelike Super 8 films. These all present the young artist as a happy, if precocious, child. Already a talented visual artist, pages upon pages of his childhood drawings parade across the screen. But these sketches begin to take on a darker edge (Fred Flintstone throttling Dino, etc) after his parents split when he was 9 years old. It was to be a defining moment, tearing a hole in his psyche that he spent the rest of his life trying to fill.
“It embarrassed him to death that we had gotten divorced,” admits his mother, Wendy, who looks unnervingly like future wife Courtney Love. He began to act out, especially when both parents remarried and started new families— seemingly without a place for him. “He wanted to be in a family, period,” remembers stepmother Jenny Cobain. “But it wasn’t the ideal family that he thought it should be. So he decided he wasn’t going to do anything that anybody said.”
As a result of his unruly behavior, he was shuttled between mother and father, and eventually offloaded on other family members. The adolescent Cobain remained unwanted and unapologetic for his actions.”He didn’t feel sorry because he was rejected,” says Jenny Cobain. “I don’t know how anybody deals with having your whole family reject you.” Like his idol John Lennon before him, this abandonment lead him to channel his emotional energy into creating music.
It was during this particularly difficult time in high school that he first attempted suicide. Cobain narrates the harrowing incident himself in his diaries, explaining how he laid himself down on the railroad tracks and waited for the 11 o’clock train. “I put two big pieces of cement on my chest and legs, and the train came closer and closer. And it went on the next track beside me instead of over me.” That Cobain was a deeply unhappy man is not exactly news, but clearly his demons predate his fame.
“I want to be more successful so we can have a more comfortable life,” he says in an early interview. But friend and Nirvana bandmate Kirst Novoselic put his goals more succinctly to Brett Morgan. “He wanted to build a home, because his home and his family fell apart.” So when success arrived with 1991’s Nevermind and the anthemic “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” it was just the means to an end.
Popular mythology has created the image of Cobain as the reluctant rock hero, as if label executives kidnapped him from his low-rent apartment and forced him to perform at major festivals. But the film makes it clear, this was something he badly wanted. Montage of Heck presents fame as an annoyance at worst, rather than the great soul destroyer— particularly when confronted with endless interviews. In the context of the documentary, it’s clear that this is something he strived for all along.
The strongest point in the film occurs during the six-month period after Nevermind went global. Cobain had opted out lucrative touring contracts in favor of focusing on his relationship with his new bride, Courtney Love. Their romance had progressed rapidly, she just as desperate for a stable loving home as he. “We were all we had, so making a family as fast as possible was important,” she says, and soon they welcomed daughter Frances Bean.
Extensive home movies form the bulk of this off-beat romantic interlude. Scored by a soft demo of Cobain singing the Beatles’ tender “And I Love Her,” the film’s occasionally R-rated home movies offer a view of untidy and unhinged domestic bliss. Kittens are present, as is adorable baby Frances and ultra close-up kisses. Love notes from the time show starry-eyed messages from Kurt to Courtney, including the extremely revealing: “I love you more than my mother.”
It’s an effective sequence because it evokes such conflicting feelings. Anyone familiar with the story knows where this train is heading. They are clearly toxic for each other, but it’s hard not to smile at the warmth. “I feel kinda happy right now,” says Courtney in a home movie as mother, father, and baby settle in for a family bath. “Yeah, me too,” Kurt is heard to reply. And you really believe it. He’s found the family he’s craved since childhood.
Of course, all is not rosy in their home life. Heroin is the great elephant in the room, and the pair’s shared love of of the drug adds a disturbing edge to videos. One particularly upsetting scene depicts a strung-out Cobain who can hardly lift his own head, let along hold his daughter while she receives her first haircut.
This addiction triggered the first major threat to Cobain’s new family. Vanity Fair’s Lynn Hirschberg published a hatchet-job profile on the couple in September 1993, intimating that Courtney Love did drugs while pregnant. Love insisted that she was misquoted, but the media fallout was severe and the state moved in to take Frances Bean away. His family broken once again, Kurt is apoplectic. Gone is the aloof and soft spoken man we had seen (offstage, at least) throughout his fame. Instead, he leaves a terrifying death-threat laden voicemail aimed at Hirschberg and her associates, which the film plays in part. “I’ve never been more fucking serious in my life,” he growls after promising to have them “snuffed out.”
Father and daughter are eventually reunited, but the damage has been done to his psyche. Nowhere is this more apparent that Nirvana’s appearance that November on MTV Unplugged. Set with stark white lilies and black candles intended to invoke a funeral, Cobain stunned the crowd with a bone-chilling version of Lead Belly’s blues standard, “Where Did You Sleep Last Night.” It consistently ranks as the greatest live single-song performance of all time, but in the context of Montage of Heck you see a twisted soul laid bare. The insecurities and jealousy are plain to see, and the look of child-like fear in his eyes before the final “all night through” is heartbreaking. The thought of losing his wife and daughter clearly haunts him at all times.
It all unraveled during Nirvana’s European tour in March 1994, when the worst of Kurt’s paranoias came true. He discovered Courtney’s halfhearted attempt at cheating on him, although she still has no idea how. “The plan didn’t go anywhere, nothing happened,” she insists today. “I didn’t even make the phone call. I think he saw it as severe rejection.” Cobain’s response was to take a massive amount of rohypnol. Though reported as an accidental overdose to the press, Love says now that it was a suicide attempt. He succeeded a month later on April 5th.
Necrophiliacs will be disappointed to learn that almost no time is spent pouring over his death, or the dubious conspiracy theories that have taken root over the years. Nor does the film dwell on any of Nirvana’s inner drama. Montage of Heck airbrushed out any band problems, including the dismissal of original drummer Chad Channing and the subsequent hiring of Dave Grohl. In fact, Grohl is notably absent from the film for reasons on which we can only speculate. Perhaps Grohl’s tumultuous relationship with Love is to blame…or perhaps not. But noted Nirvana scholar Zack Sigel calls shenanigans.
Montage of Heck presents a clear-eyed, occasionally bruising portrait of a man who wanted to find a safe place where he belonged. To quote Brett Morgan, Kurt died not of fame, but of a broken heart. The documentary is the study of one man’s brilliance and also his pain. The ending is tragic but not surprising. You see the train coming a long ways off. Sure, you hope it’s on a different track, but this time it isn’t.