Brett Morgen’s docu-essay about Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain is part rags-to-riches story of a rock star; part extra-narrative, arty meditation on the nature of creativity and pain; and part argument that Cobain was a doomed figure from the start. Morgen secured the cooperation of Cobain’s family (his mother, widow Courtney Love and their daughter, Frances Bean) and this results in some intimate access that careens from poignant to infuriating, from revealing to uncomfortable.
Home-movie footage of Cobain shows him as an adorable tow-headed little boy, while contemporary interviews illuminate it was not a happy home. From there, Cobain’s journey is typical — an overly sensitive troubled youth who finds an outlet in music, and who is emotionally ill-prepared when Nirvana’s 1991 Nevermind LP catapults him into superstardom. Morgen tries to freshen up the story through his own montage — a mix of songs, archival footage, home movies, snippets from Cobain’s notebooks and animated sequences. At times, it’s effective — Cobain’s frantic, emotionally naked scribblings are weirdly revelatory, used like Cobain’s own footnotes. And there’s plenty to ponder in the almost numbing amount of video footage of Kurt and Courtney combining drug binges with mundane household tasks.
For that generation who, upon his death in 1994, instantly enshrined Cobain into the ranks of tortured geniuses, this film will hardly prove definitive. (No Grohl? Too much Courtney! What about the death?) But in its very hodge-podge structure, Montage seems to understand that: People are made of innumerable pieces, and rounding them up and re-assembling those bits will only ever provide an incomplete picture.