The problem with documentaries, as it would seem, is that there is almost zero new content to be dished out and no room to accommodate the creative mind of the director. And with the subject being so recent in time and so discussed a story; it is easy to see why the audience would be limited to hard core fans. The real story is not quite so, as Mark Twain put it: “Truth is stranger than fiction”, and it is every bit the skill of a documentarian that decides how a famously known story can be told, in a most riveting manner to engage even audiences that have written books on the subject. This is exactly what Brett Morgen who brings to us Montage of Heck, proves in this intensely intimate story of the last rock god.
It would have been very easy for Heck to be about many things – from the rich material that is the music of Nirvana to the most debated puzzle of Cobain’s supposed suicide; Morgen had many an issue to choose from. At the same time, it would have been as easy to create a temple for the fans, something they could cry over as he blared on about the legend that was Cobain. Instead, the style he adopts is most unnerving and takes the form of a powerfully ambiguous character sketch that does not resort to flat hagiography to achieve its ends. By weaving together a web of real footage, interviews with people associated with Kurt, notebook ramblings and animated sketches, Heck presents a world as strange and disoriented as the man himself. It is no rockumentary either, featuring very few actual performance footage and whole music from the band, but there is need. The dizzy and unhinged quality that it brings to the table suffices to take us through all the notes of his life as well as the mind that gave birth to Nirvana. The documentary understands its subject to be Kurt Cobain and not Nirvana itself, taking us through his life around his music, and yet letting us into his music in an evocative manner.
Well- paced in its progression, Heck starts at the very beginning with his parents talking of Kurt’s childhood and the happy years, all pieced together with home videos from decades ago. That is one thing Morgen’s documentary provides us in oodles; countless home videos of Kurt drawn from all points in his life, which range in appreciation from sweet delightful to the horridly bare. What is done differently here is that it is not the documentarian’s slightest intention to glorify his subject’s struggle or rebellion, nor is it to crucify him. He treads a neutral line by telling us through the voices of his parents what started hacking away at his innocence, all the while maintaining an almost sympathetic light for the drug-infused wreck he later came into being. This is where the relevance of the home videos comes in; they humanise Cobain to the point of grounding him to a belief in a wholesome family, and yet it never staggers to the point of detaching itself from his artistic mind.
It is an ever-fidgeting collage that is created here; with transitions flowing rightly from imperfect home videos, stage performances and animated interludes to depict the anecdotes that you can only find in Kurt’s notes, all with the daring of his music. All of these collages are interrupted from time to time by the voices and faces of Krist, Courtney and his parents, who offer not unfitting pauses but helps in playing out the documentary like a music tape, all the while not being one. Admittedly, the interviews sometimes get too tiring or repetitive, and maybe sometimes very subjective but I guess when you ask other voices to weigh in on your subject’s life; personal opinions are the order of the day. Krist keeps saying that ‘Kurt hated being embarrassed’ and that is proved profoundly true throughout. One might even say that the single previous line is what finds itself echoed through Cobain’s years as handled by Heck. Criticism and public eyes were never his cup of tea, and it is increasingly clear that he never had the grasp of handling the media despite his consistently dismissal of them. It is well-known that Kurt was a disturbed youth whose angst found expression in his vocal chords and his guitar strings, but it was never made clearer just how much of a perfectionist he was, never wanting anything to be less than what he desired it to be.
Morgen uses an extremely fitting visual style for Kurt’s artistic mind; which is really what is on display here. He animates the pages from Kurt’s book and the scribbling found therein to poignantly display the raw artistic emotion and tragic energy that was at play. The lines between his art and his troubles are blurred enough, and yet Heck never preaches to its audience, instead adopting the eye of an observer flipping through the pages and allowing the audience to make of his life what they want. The incredibly intimate and artistic style that is adopted does not hoodwink the viewer or overreach and eclipse Kurt himself, rather what it channels through the telling of the man’s tale is the music of his soul. In essence, a documentary is a collage, and in throwing together news clippings, voice recordings, notebook entries, and video, what Morgen gives birth to is a mess that mirrors Kurt Cobain’s mind. Indeed, Montage of Heck flows with the uncanny rhythm and tone of Nirvana, although it does not delve into the music itself. I can see many fans being disappointed by this void, which I can see resolved in only one way: Montage of Heck was never a documentary of Nirvana. There are documentaries that run the line of ‘made by fans for fans’ that would probably explore the art and young sensation that was Nirvana, but Morgen is clear from the start that his would be about its frontman. That is not to say Nirvana is never handled, but only as a means to an end, the end being the display of everything that surrounded Kurt which found itself reflected in his notes.
All of this is not to say Heck is perfect; there are many elements missing here that might have made for a more holistic portrait of Kurt Cobain; and some that might have overstayed their welcome. For instance, it is surprising that the more successful third member of Nirvana – Dave Grohl – does not weigh in on his bandmate and so our peek into his band-life is limited to whatever is dished out by Krist. Such a more currently significant artist reminiscing about how life with the last rock god truly was might have added another layer to the experience. Meanwhile, we find the second half a tad more dragged out and fixated too much on Kurt’s relationship with Courtney Love. While the relationship itself was handled well, with seemingly negligible bias but for what Courtney says, it seemed that it was steering further away from Kurt, with his notes remaining the link back to his mind. This wasn’t so for the former half, when whatever incident was told had the undercurrent of Kurt’s voice making itself heard. Well, for one thing, this fixation provided us with some of the most intimate and some never-before-seen footage of Kurt’s later years with Courtney and their daughter Frances. This footage is perhaps also the most dangerously real peek into Kurt’s life, his fear and love for his child taking centre stage. It is easy then to see all three of them as little kids, poking fun at other artists like Axle Rose, the Rolling Stones and such.
What I found particularly beautiful about the documentary was how it didn’t go into Kurt’s death and conspiracy theories and speculation surrounding it. The documentary merely ends with the words ‘Kurt Cobain took his own life’ stating what is widely accepted as fact, never losing its stead in that Heck is a documentation and no more; no matter how stylized a one. It does not explore all facets of the man that was Kurt Cobain, which seems all the more frustrating when it concerns someone whose influence is so recent that it does not seem detached from today. For the most part, Morgen manages to do what he set out to do, tell his story as it is, without unnecessary fan service or brutal dismissal; he tells us what we already knew but in a more tragic and artistic manner than before. More wholesome documentaries may already have been made, or on their way, but it is undeniable that Montage of Heck paints a more unflinching, intimate picture of Kurt Cobain, while strangely finding his artistic genius surfacing through the rhythm.