Thursday, May 14, 2015

Film review: Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck

Teenagers of my generation grew up idolizing Kurt Cobain. It would have been hard not to, for he and his group Nirvana were huge successes. Nirvana were massively popular in a way that only Radiohead, later in the decade of the 1990's, came close to capturing in its own heyday. The rise of Nirvana seemed like the changing of the guard. Implausibly, the local Top 40 radio station stopped playing Duran Duran, Guns n' Roses, and Mötley Crüe. Instead it put the Nevermind album on heavy rotation. I liked the song "Lithium" before I even knew the title, before I even bought the album myself.

As proof of my age, I purchased the record on cassette tape, because I didn't own a CD player yet. Though they could be located, compact disc players had yet to take over as the predominant media format. I wore the album out completely, playing it from start to finish nearly every day. MTV helped make Nevermind a phenomenal success. These days, people forget that, once upon a time, how modern punk rock and alternative rock was mostly consigned to the underground. Most of those bands were not taken seriously by major labels, had to be purchased at indie or specialty stores, or failing that, needed to be specially ordered. In my sleepy little suburb, the commercial record store didn't stock either genre.

Oh, how times were to change. By the end of the Nineties, a variety of groups which rode Nirvana's coattails to success created a brand new format, that of alternative rock radio. In the early part of the decade, we'd had to wait until Sunday night, when the Top 40 station took a break from playing Warrant and focused exclusively on alternative groups for a few hours. It's close to impossible today to emphasize precisely how much of a splash Nevermind made upon arrival. Absolutely everyone bought it and it cut across class, racial, and regional boundaries.

Last week, HBO aired the most extensive Kurt Cobain documentary yet, Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck. The audience share would have been larger if it hadn't been for wall-to-wall coverage of rioting in Baltimore. The film shows an unflinchingly personal portrayal of a talented, but incredibly troubled man, a conclusion likely lost on no one from the outset. The Nirvana guitarist and primary songwriter lived much of his early life as a loner, a hyperactive behavior problem child passed from parent to parent, relative to relative.

With little direction and no ambition, except when it came to playing music, Kurt's anger at misogyny and what he considered abusive masculine behavior towards women is shown in his own handwriting of his voluminous journals. As a feminist hero, Cobain was uncommonly concerned about the rights of women, partially because he himself could not fit into the role of rugged masculinity that was the default setting in the blue collar logging town of his upbringing.

Somewhat less flattering is his decision to lose his virginity in high school to a woman who was slightly developmentally disabled. Though the act was consensual, he found he could not follow through with much conviction or enthusiasm and left midway before much else transpired. The girl's father figured out what had happened and angrily came to school trying to find the responsible party.

Adolescent rebellion aside, the most damning allegation is that of Kurt's mother. Shortly before the release of Nevermind, Kurt let his mother listen to the final mix. Her response was of not of pride, nor joy, but fear, instead. "This album is going to change everything," she said. "You better buckle up because you're not ready for this." It was to be a very prescient prediction.

A surprisingly sedate and mostly thoughtful Courtney Love makes an appearance in Kurt's life story roughly halfway through the film. Her previous cinematic portrayals have not been sympathetic, even insinuating that she had some large role in Kurt's ultimate demise. We see her here as a fellow misfit, writing nonsensical free association poetry to him in the form of a love letter. The relationship we view between the two is tender, albeit at times dysfunctional and co-dependent.

Love has not done herself any favors with her past behavior. Many view her today as a barely functional, mentally ill attention whore. In a series of intimate, homemade movies, she smokes cigarettes during her pregnancy and awkwardly parents her child. Allegations that she used heroin during her pregnancy made for salacious headlines at the time. In these videos, an insecure but somehow strangely charming Love obligingly flashes her breasts for the camera more than once.

Though Cobain fumed to anyone who would listen that reports of drug addiction and mental instability were untrue, they persisted in the media. By then, the narrative had drifted away from the music to the behavior of the Cobain-Love couple. He denied each allegation furiously, but even if they were said to be over-exaggerated gossip at the time, they proved eventually to be mostly factual all along. Viewing the home camcorder movies is difficult to see, showing two barely functional people, both junkies, trying to competently raise an infant.

We, the audience, mostly cared about the music and found the side show a distraction. Kurt, the rejected child, resurfaced when each instance of unfavorable news about his life with Courtney was published in the media. As Shakespeare noted in Hamlet, slightly over 400 years ago, the lady doth protest too much, methinks. He lashed out with fury, but was concealing much.  

I remember the day that Kurt Cobain died in early April 1994, but I will resist the impulse to turn that depressing event it into more than it was. The weather was at least appropriate to the occasion. It did happen to be a bleak, overcast, washed out spring day. Though every fan knew that something very bad had happened, none of us knew the consequences of what would follow. Though we didn't know it then, what we were observing was the end of an era. Grunge would die out with Kurt and so would alternative music by the close of the decade.

My generation never blamed Kurt Cobain for his suicide. We were more inclined to believe that his heroin usage had been a means of getting rid of debilitating stomach pain that modern medicine could not heal. Yet even so, Kurt Cobain was a junkie, and if Courtney Love's interview is to be taken as truth, his foremost ambition was to live life as one, stomach pain or no stomach pain. Shortly before his death, Kurt Cobain mused in an interview of never wanting to lose his edge or to grow complacent. As we know now, that private fear, if it was also meant truthfully, never came to pass.

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