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“There’s been a lot written about Kurt,” declared Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck director Brett Morgen while introducing the documentary’s New York premiere last night, inside Spring Studios. “A lot has been written and a lot has been spoken, but if you wanna known an artist, go right to the artist.”
Amazingly, that’s exactly what Morgen (The Kid Stays in the Picture) did for Montage of Heck, a fascinating, unconventional, and altogether mesmerizing examination of the ’90s rock god who fronted the Seattle grunge-rock band Nirvana before committing suicide in April 1994. Given access to all of Cobain’s private files by the rocker’s widow, Courtney Love, and empowered by his now-22-year-old daughter, Frances Bean Cobain, Morgen started working on the film way back in 2007, and the eight-year project is unlike any other documentary screening at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival, or any other film festival, for that matter. Montage of Heck pieces Cobain’s journal entries, audio recordings, performance footage, old on-camera interviews, and the Cobain family’s homemade Super 8 films all together with new interviews, including ones with Love and Cobain’s mother, sister, father, and stepmother.
By using all of Cobain’s own personal audio files, many of which could double as soundtracks for movies directed by surrealistic filmmakers like David Lynch, Morgen has created the closest thing to actually entering Cobain’s headspace—yes, even the frame-of-mind that, one can presume, comes from using heroin, Cobain’s overly used drug of choice. It’s dark and moody film, but it’s also strikingly intimate, showing the emotionally troubled and notoriously media-despising singer/songwriter in ways his fans haven’t seen him before. Home movie clips take you directly into his and Love’s behind-closed-doors private lives, from their extracurricular bedroom activities to cutting an infant Frances’ hair.
Immediately following Montage of Heck’s screening last night, Rolling Stone reporter Neil Strauss sat down with Morgen and Love for a candid Q&A session. The director made it clear that the film wouldn’t exist without Frances’ green light, nor would its abundance of very private footage, like a moment where a clearly out-of-his-head Cobain holding Frances when she was just a baby. “The license goes to next-of-kin,” Morgen told Strauss, “and when I showed Frances the film, she said, ‘Don’t cut a frame.’” For someone who lost her dad when she was only two, Montage of Heck provided an incredible opportunity. “After she saw it for the first time,” added Morgen, “she said to me, ‘Thank you for giving me the couple hours with my father I never had.’”
Love shares her daughter’s sentiments about the film. Last night marked her fourth time seeing Montage of Heck, and her reaction to it was much different than the other occasions. “I experienced some shame this time,” she openly told Strauss and the audience. “There was shame and guilt over what I could have done.” The first time she watched Morgen’s film, though, she was just thankful. Looking at Morgen, she fought back tears to say, “I got to spend more time with Kurt.”
Morgen, for his part, spent a whole lot of time with Kurt, though not physically, of course. Montage of Heck looks deeply into Cobain’s troubled teenage years through diary-like monologues he recorded onto cassette tapes, and to get highlights from that audio archive into the film, he had to transfer over 200+ hours of cassette recordings. In those tapes Morgen uncovered stories about Cobain’s awkward and morally wrong first sexual encounter and his first suicide attempt. “I felt such a difference between the cadence of his voice that was filtered through the media and his real voice [heard on the cassette tapes],” Morgen told Strauss.
That, in Love’s case, is why Montage of Heck is such a revelation. “Brett spent a lot of time with Kurt’s spirit,” she said. “That spirit comes through in the film.” As difficult as it is for her to watch a movie about the man she calls her “soulmate,” especially with a crowd of Tribeca Film Festival guests as large as the one inside Spring Studios, re-watching Montage of Heck allows Love to be with reunited with the man she loved, and still loves: “That’s why I keep punishing myself [by watching it again].”
The Tribeca Talks®: After The Movie event covered a ton of raw ground, including how Morgen inadvertently unearthed a private Cobain/Love "sex tape." See our favorite clips below.
Listen to the full conversation here