Friday, 11 December 2015

Kurt Cobain: Montage Of Heck (2015) - Movie Review

http://redribbonreviewers.wordpress.comIn 1991, out of the haze of hair metal and obnoxiously overblown metrosexuality, Nirvana broke onto the pop music scene and pretty much razed the entire landscape around them. From there, they rebuilt from the ashes to create what would end up being the definitive musical attitude for the 90’s. All of a sudden, “alternative” artists broke out into the mainstream, bringing with them a sense of raw vulnerability and unflinching emotion the likes of which hadn’t been seen before. This would later give birth to the rarely-if-ever-good nu-metal movement and, God help us, Nickelback, but for the time being, Kurt Cobain and company were at the level of new rock gods. But then, typical rock star backstage drama took place, unfortunately ending in Kurt’s suicide in 1994. We’ve seen plenty of documentaries emerge about the artist, as well as a film loosely based on his story by Gus Van Sant in the form of Last Days, but this should prove to be something different. Not only is it co-produced by HBO, the only TV channel that carries consistent quality when it comes to feature-length productions, but this is also the first doco to be made with the support of the Cobain family. Will that extra access lead to something special?

The plot: Through interviews of Kurt’s family and friends, Super 8 footage taken at the time and dramatisations set to audio recordings by the subject himself, the film sets to show the life & times of Kurt Cobain, from his upbringing in Aberdeen, Washington, to his creative works and, ultimately, to being the front-man of one of the biggest rock band successes of all time.

For those not in the know, the subtitle “Montage Of Heck” comes from a mixtape that Kurt made way back when from numerous samples of old vinyl and bits he added himself. What resulted from all that experimentation was a deranged ocean of noise, a collage of pure psychedelia that seemed to have no real form to it but nonetheless served as a creative and personal insight into the man himself. Judging by the composition of this film, and the fact that clippings from that mixtape can be heard throughout, I can only assume that director/co-editor Brett Morgen wanted to do the same thing here.

There are a lot of elements that make up the film: Rotoscoped sequences to accompany audio recordings from Kurt, excerpts from his writings, montages of his performances and home videos and animations comprised of his drawings; this is all coupled with the more traditional documentary additions like interviews with people who were close to him. As all these aspects intersect and contrast each other, it induces a mental state of almost anarchic bliss in how much chaos can be on the screen at once, and yet the way it is all arranged fits together perfectly. It’s like taking a jigsaw puzzle and forcing pieces together that aren’t meant to fit; sure, it’s not the ‘right’ way of doing it, but then when you get a better look at the overall picture, it actually looks pretty damn good as is.

Grunge is one in a long, long tradition of artistic movements that were borne from the dissatisfaction of the youth of a given generation; same with the hippies, same with the punks, same with the current-day hipsters. As we learn about Cobain’s upbringing and the Baby Boomer attitudes of his family, we see the origins of someone who was almost destined to be part of that history. Among many other labels, Kurt Cobain is probably most remembered as one of the archetypal tragic poet musicians; the tortured artist who saw through every string pull of the higher-ups and delivered the truth to his listeners. This smacks of pretence from the off-set, which immediately sets off my bullshit detectors, but that feeling doesn’t even make it past the sub-subconscious.

The depiction we get of Cobain here is of a guy who loved being creative, whatever form that ended up taking, and who had a wicked sense of humour. We see him being cute with Courtney Love, joking around with his friends and bandmates and showing the kind of mindset that loved the euphoria that performing live delivered, but hated the magnifying class of the media that came with it. It’s not all that nuanced but, with the way it’s portrayed, it is still feels damn honest. It also helps that it doesn’t feel like it’s deifying him at any point; the depiction of him in a blonde wig singing The Rose before making a pratfall was not only a humorous way to start out, but also humbling in the best way possible.

The music, when not using Nirvana’s catalogue and instrumentals to great effect, takes a similar tone to that of the eponymous sound collage; in that, it is occasionally nightmare-inducing. When it reaches the tension-raising crescendos and cacophonous screeches, played alongside the poetic ramblings of Kurt’s journal, it sometimes comes across like the inner workings of a disturbed mind in a serial killer fashion. Think a grunge reinterpretation of the opening credits to Se7en. Then again, considering this consistently feels like delving into the inner workings of its subject, that feeling of unfiltered exposure ends up working to the film’s advantage. It’s unnerving but enlightening at the same time, as would be any case of getting to know more about a person that thought possible before. It even gets to the point where they use a cover of Smells Like Teen Spirit to similar effect, almost as if Morgen overheard people talking about how overplayed the song still is and wanted to show that it could still be effective. He certainly delivered on that front.

All in all, this is an amazingly well-constructed documentary that gives a genuine sense of getting into the mind of the subject. The footage utilised is used to great effect, the Rotoscoped sequences are brilliantly realized and the animations of Kurt’s journal, both his writings and his drawings, can get legitimately unnerving at times thanks to how they’re used. Kurt was always worried about being humiliated during his lifetime; with how much effort Morgen made to honour not only his name but also his artistic sensibilities, I don’t think he has much to worry about.

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