Film Review: 'Cobain: Montage of Heck'

Film Review: 'Cobain: Montage of Heck'

Alex Capper

I was about 13 when I first heard Nirvana. I was a socially awkward and confused teenager who never really connected to anything before finding the band, and my discovery was life changing as it quickly transformed into a musical and social obsession.

I have their entire discography, have watched hours upon hours of interviews and concerts, my room is lined with their posters and their shirts are a seemingly permanent part of my wardrobe. Even though I have exponentially expanded my music taste since, Nirvana still remains my number one and it’s not even close.

I am one of hundreds of thousands who not only hold up the band as a musical colossus but also revere Kurt Cobain as a cultural icon, so, yes, perhaps this review will be biased. Yet for even the most die hard fans, Kurt Cobain’s true nature has remained an enigma. The more we tried to understand Kurt Cobain for who he really was, the more isolated and idolised he became as a symbolic figure, until Montage of Heck came along.

Montage of Heck isn’t a documentary about Kurt Cobain the rockstar. It’s not a documentary about Kurt Cobain the junkie. Nor is about Nirvana or Courtney. Montage of Heck is purely about Kurt Cobain as a person. Moreover, it’s an unflinchingly honest reflection of Kurt Cobain’s life through Cobain’s very own words and eyes. Montage of Heck immediately forms an exclusively intimate and deeply personal setting from the very beginning and never loses focus.

With interviews of Kurt’s closest and most loved throughout the film (including Cobain’s mother, father and step-mother, all of whom had never been interviewed on camera before) and never-before-seen footage of Cobain’s childhood, Montage of Heck strives for everyone to be able to create a unique and familiar bond with the rock icon.

Operating in chronological order, the documentary launches the themes of Cobain’s life at the outset. Montage of Heck quickly establishes Cobain’s deep wanting of family and acceptance despite his contradictory actions of rejection and anger. By the time Cobain enters adolescence, the film almost becomes Cobain’s audio-visual autobiography. Director Brett Morgen does an exceptional job at bringing a vast collection of Cobain’s highly expressive and private artwork, writings and audio recordings to life as Cobain himself begins to tell his own story.

The documentary also incorporates animated scenes coupled with his old audio recordings. These beautifully drawn montages create a unique window of insight as they allow Cobain to voice his own story the way he sees it. For me, these segments are the visual highlights throughout the film, and they simultaneously demonstrate Cobain’s constant creative spark as well as his deepest thoughts, fears and motivations.

Montage of Heck uses these methods to recreate a vivid interpretation of Nirvana’s meteoric rise through the world of Kurt. There is a brilliant juxtaposition of the devoted effort and love Cobain put into the band and how uncomfortable he felt with their rise to the top. Importantly, by placing a substantial emphasis on how Kurt felt incredibly isolated with his new found fame and ‘icon-of-a-generation’ status, Montage of Heck never makes Nirvana the focal point of the documentary. Nirvana was just one side of Kurt’s life and Morgen never loses that focus.

There is a brilliant juxtaposition of the devoted effort and love Cobain put into the band and how uncomfortable he felt with their rise to the top.

That being said, it is obvious that Morgen is awfully aware that a vast majority of his audience will be Nirvana fans. Thus, throughout the entire film, the soundtrack is either Nirvana originals or Nirvana performing covers. However, this isn’t just an ode to Nirvana for the sake of it. Morgen brilliantly uses Nirvana’s musical texture and Cobain’s lyricism to link a piece of music to a correlating aspect of Cobain’s life.

The documentary takes a darkly intimate twist in its depiction of Kurt’s relationship with Courtney Love and heroin, which are often one and the same.  Through exclusive home videos and diary entries, we are taken on their whirlwind, drug-fuelled romance and bear witness the birth of their daughter Frances Bean Cobain. These videos give us the most exclusive portal into Kurt’s private life. Out of reach of the media and free of fans, these excruciatingly raw videos show Cobain’s true, conflicted nature.

The footage of Kurt and Courtney joking together is uncomfortably heartfelt, for it’s painfully clear that these loved-up moments were occurring in the midst of a drug haze. It verges on heartbreaking when we find ourselves watching footage of the infant Frances being lovingly cradled by two parents who, while they adore her, are glazed off smack.

Showing this tender, but dark, side of Kurt’s private life so explicitly gives the iconic Cobain an element of realism that had been vacant in the Nirvana landscape previously. In no interview, in no concert, in nothing was Kurt as intimately real as he appears in these videos, and just as we begin to feel connected to Kurt, who seems to have finally reached the family and acceptance that he wanted since his childhood, he’s gone, and the film is over. 

Montage of Heck is a truly unparalleled venture into the depths of Kurt Cobain’s story. It brings Cobain to life in an artistic, explosive and mesmerising fashion and provides us with the sentiment and sensation that Cobain is telling us his own story, completely unfiltered.

In the end, Montage of Heck achieves what it set out to do and what no other Nirvana piece has been able to do: it strips away Kurt Cobain’s rockstar mythology and allows the real Kurt Cobain to shine for who he really was, warts and all.


Alex Capper, once affectionally called by Ross & John of 3AW as the '7 foot fucker', loves the Essendon Football Club, stalking reddit and dabbing. He thinks he can speak French, but he can't.