Help me if you can, I’m feeling down
And I do appreciate you being ’round
Help me get my feet back on the ground
Won’t you please, please help me
The exuberant pop of John Lennon’s lyrics on The Beatles’ “Help!” masked just how hurt Lennon really was. If only people had actually listened to the words.
Kurt Cobain was the Lennon for Generation X, a musical genius whose rise to fame was no less meteoric than Lennon’s, and whose life was no less documented. And while the anger and intensity in Nirvana’s music was a little more obvious about his pain, Brett Morgen’s HBO documentary “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” is the first film to successfully to delve into Cobain’s psyche.
Though “Montage of Heck” traverses his life till his death and includes the appropriate notes of rock-doc history, Morgen’s work is a daring and disturbed look into the annals of Cobain’s mind. It’s a horror movie trip of a documentary. The countless audio snippets, scrapbook notes and home movies of Cobain to another director would be an un-cinematic liability, if not purely unusable. Morgen has taken those materials and turned them into a surreal, artistic virtue, one that shows Cobain’s genius and madness better than possibly any rock-doc has dared.
Watching “Montage of Heck” can feel like watching the torture Alex was forced to endure in “A Clockwork Orange”. It’s violent, aggressive, endlessly long, random, perverse and utterly painful. Morgen uses animation and wild, scatterbrained montages of footage that add an image to the sound of Cobain’s genius. If you’re wondering what a Montage of Heck is, it’s Morgen’s rapid smash cuts of campy ‘50s footage and graphic novel gore atop one of Nirvana’s wildest songs, “Territorial Pissings”.
But composing Cobain’s genius in this way does more than create an intense mood. We see incoherent flashes of nightmarish words and adjectives that scream Cobain’s hurt, but they’re actually early brainstorming for his band’s name. These scrapbook scrawls show Cobain’s ambition, organization and dedication in great detail. His margin doodles of early album art ideas are little slices of rock history, but they also demonstrate that so much of his genius was allowing his brain to experiment and put his madness into practice.
That Morgen was able to create a film around these brainstorms is part of its brilliance. There’s an engrossing animated sequence in which Cobain recounts a memory from his pre-Nirvana, teenage years. He scored weed with some guys he hated because it allowed him to escape. He then took advantage of a mentally challenged girl where his friends originally stole the weed, only to be labeled a “retard fucker” and contemplate suicide. Morgen peppers this incredible story with a string version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, and earlier a music box rendition of “All Apologies” that make his precious childhood years so delicate and frail in comparison to what’s to come.
By the film’s end, Morgen allows home movie footage of Cobain and wife Courtney Love to speak above his animated images. These recollections don’t have the style of the rest of “Montage of Heck” but have all the hurt. They live in pitiful junkie squalor, and the media prattles on about how Frances Bean Cobain was born high on crack. It looks like the most disturbing Maysles Brothers movie ever made, but still it has glimpses of Cobain’s love and affection for his music, his wife and his daughter. All the while, Morgen digs up a gem of Kurt covering The Beatles’ “And I Love Her” that speaks wonders.
Another film could’ve made Cobain out to be healthier, more jubilant and playful and less damaged. So many interviews here show Cobain to be simply exhausted and exasperated with the media. Krist Novocelic and Love (but an absent Dave Grohl) both confess that “Kurt didn’t want to be humiliated,” while Morgen eliminates any of their fonder memories for their friend.
But for “Montage of Heck”, Morgen’s depressing and absolutely necessary approach to his life echoes some of Cobain’s own words. “Unless it is about me, it is now my duty to completely drain you.”