The Secret Life of Kurt Cobain: Brett Morgen’s Eye-Opening Documentary ‘Montage of Heck’
Eight years ago, Courtney Love approached filmmaker Brett Morgen (The Kid Stays in the Picture) about directing the first fully authorized documentary on late Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain. But Love had already sold much of Nirvana’s publishing rights to music exec Larry Mestel. Cut to a few years later and, with Love, Nirvana, and Mestel onboard, Morgen met with Cobain’s daughter, Frances Bean, who by then had gained control over her father’s name, likeness, and appearance rights.
According to Morgen, he thought he was just going over his idea for the movie but before he could get two words out, Frances Bean pitched him on her idea for the film which, interestingly enough, was completely in sync with his own vision.
“She wanted a film that humanized Kurt—that wasn’t St. Kurt or Kurt the Celebrity Rock Star, but Kurt the Man,” Morgen tells The Daily Beast. “The focus for me changed after I met Frances to wanting to create a film that would allow her to have a couple hours with her father that she never had. Because Kurt died when she was two, she has no memories of him. I thought if it worked for her on that level, it would work for other people.”
The result is Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck. Directed by Morgen and executive produced by Frances Bean, it's an utterly fascinating look at the music legend’s inner life via a multimedia patchwork of hundreds of hours of unreleased audio footage, interviews, home videos, animation, drawings, mixtapes, diary entries, and testimonials from friends and family, ranging from his parents to Krist Novoselic and Courtney Love. There are, Morgen says, a total of 40 minutes of never-before-heard Cobain instrumentals and pieces of 5 unreleased songs, as well as Cobain’s cover of The Beatles’ “And I Love Her.” Morgen’s film is strikingly intimate, pulling back the veil on people’s idealized notions of what many consider the last true rock star. It will be released on HBO later this year.
Much of the content of the film came courtesy of Love, who gave Morgen the key to a storage facility filled with Cobain artifacts that she’d never rummaged through before, telling him, “Do what you need to do.” And Montage of Heck’s title is the name of a Cobain mixtape that he made in 1988, a sonic tapestry consisting of snippets of everything from James Brown to Daniel Johnston that offers a Being John Malkovich-esque wormhole into his unique mind. Morgen says he leaked the mixtape online a few months back to “get it out into the public discourse” so that his desired doc title could be approved by the powers that be.
“The whole film was intended to be the filmic equivalent of Kurt’s aesthetic,” says Morgen. “The film can be ear-piercingly loud and then very soft and gentle, and it’s a metaphor for Nirvana’s music.”
A gut-punch of strident pop culture clips—reminiscent of his mixtapes—gives way to Super 8 footage of Cobain’s home life growing up in Aberdeen, Washington. Cobain is an incredibly cute child, and we see clips of him hammering away on a piano at two, and shredding a miniature guitar at the age of four. Things change when Cobain’s parents divorce at age seven; he is shaken and withdrawn.
“I remember feeling ashamed,” Cobain says in the film. “I couldn’t face my friends at school anymore, because I desperately wanted to have the classic, you know, typical family.”
Adds Morgen: “It’s not a movie about a scene, or a group of cool people. It’s a movie about a boy. It’s a boy trying to find connection, and trying to find love.”
Following the divorce, he’s repeatedly taken in and then kicked out by his mother, father and stepmother, uncle, and family friends. His shame soon manifested itself in violence, and he falls in with a group of local bullies—scenes that Morgen recreates through Waltz with Bashir-like animation sequences. It’s here where Morgen says he found his film’s “Rosebud.”
In Cobain’s audio biography, he tells the story of him losing his virginity. One day, he alleges that he went to the house of an overweight, mentally retarded girl—who they bullied the previous day—and the two had sex. Once the word got out, Cobain was ridiculed by his classmates and became a social pariah. So, he says he went down to the train tracks, put his feet in cement blocks, and “waited for the 11 o’clock train to end my life.” But it missed him.
“He’s describing some of the most dark, harrowing moments in a young man’s life, and he’s doing it with a Cheshire cat smile,” recalls Morgen. “It’s very disturbing, and revelatory. It was like 'Rosebud.' Everything led me back to that story.”
Yes, the subject of suicide is indeed a recurring theme throughout Montage of Heck, which Morgen says should silence all the “conspiracy theorists” that believe that Cobain didn’t take his own life, e.g. the controversial Nick Broomfield documentary Kurt & Courtney, which hints at a conspiracy involving Love. He even left “tons of footage about suicide” on the cutting room floor because he didn’t want it to get redundant.
“He talks about taking his life twice in that [virginity] story, which is going to be a revelation for all of these insane conspiracy theorists who think that Kurt didn’t kill himself,” says Morgen.
He then gets a bit heated. “Nick Broomfield is one of the reasons I went into documentary, and Nick Broomfield should have served time for what he did in that film by putting someone’s life at risk for no reason. Courtney has had death threats for years because of that film, which is completely unfounded. Kurt wasn’t this meek fucking guy that they made him out to be. I heard hours and hours of audio of Kurt and Courtney high and playing music together, and Courtney would say something to Kurt and Kurt would mouth right back at her.”
These private home videos taken by Cobain and Love really shed light on the nature of their relationship. They were primarily taken during his six-month hiatus from Nirvana following a worldwide tour for Nevermind where he retired to a home in Washington with Love to do heroin. We see Love and Cobain brushing their teeth in the morning, Love exposing her breasts, the couple playing music together (clearly out of it), them imitating Sid and Nancy, and mocking Guns N’ Roses. We even see them kissing up close while having sex. “It doesn’t get more intimate than that!” Morgen says.
While some of these scenes are cute, others are disturbing. There’s a powerful scene where Love admits to using heroin while she was pregnant with Frances Bean, and gets emotional when discussing how the tabloid media's claims that Frances was born addicted to heroin, epitomized by Lynn Hirschberg's awful Vanity Fair hit piece, plagued her family. "[Hirschberg] has blood on her hands," says a pissed-off Morgen. In another, a strung-out Cobain falls asleep sitting upright while playing with his infant daughter.
Nirvana and Cobain superfans will point to a few omissions, such as the influence of his gay high school friend and riot grrrl love interest Tobi Vail on Cobain/Nevermind, why Chad Canning was canned from the band, and how they came to hire Dave Grohl to replace him on drums. In fact, while Krist Novoselic features prominently in the doc, Grohl is rather noticeably absent. Morgen says Grohl was just too busy, and they filmed an interview with Grohl after they’d finished the film that may find its way into later versions of Montage of Heck.
“We put the film together, and then I felt like I made a slight mistake,” says Morgen. “And Dave wanted to do it, man. Dave, management, and myself, we all knew that if Dave wasn’t in the film that it would look like there was tension in the family—which is clearly not the case. It was an aesthetic choice.”
He pauses. “What I do in my movies is the cinematic adaptation of a subject, not the historical adaptation of a subject,” he says. “As a documentary filmmaker, there’s sometimes this expectation of being a historian. Hey asshole, go read a fucking book! I’m going to give you an experience where you go deep inside of Kurt in a way you wouldn’t be able to access in a novel.”
The film closes with Cobain’s overdose in Rome, where he was found half-dead in his hotel room after consuming 50 Rohypnol pills and champagne. According to Love, Cobain tried to take his life because she was “thinking about” cheating on him with someone else, and Cobain was such a good reader of her that he could tell. It’s these themes of “shame and ridicule" that, Morgen says, are central to the Cobain saga.
“You take it from the shame and ridicule he felt with his family’s divorce all the way through to the interview with Courtney where she talks about Kurt ending his life because he felt betrayed,” he says.
As to why Montage of Heck doesn’t explore Cobain’s suicide at the age of 27, a death which has proven to be catnip for conspiracy loons, he gets more than a bit riled up.
“He was brain dead after Rome,” says Morgen. “He didn’t create any more art, and he took 50 Rohypnol pills. And the gossipy final 48 hours of Kurt? Anybody who really considers themselves a fan of Kurt Cobain and wants to focus in on the last few weeks of his life is not a fucking fan; a fucking gravedigger is what they are.”
Morgen takes a deep drag of his vape pen, and calms down. “You realize that Kurt had put all of his eggs into this basket of Courtney and Frances, and family meant everything to him. When he felt that had been polluted, he took his life.”