Chattering Class

‘Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck’ Finds Humor in the Darkness

Director Brett Morgen talks to Brendan about his comprehensive documentary, which explores the late rock star's life through the lens of Cobain's own home videos, art and music.

American singer and guitarist Kurt Cobain performs with his group Nirvana at a taping of the television program 'MTV Unplugged,' New York, New York, Novemeber 18, 1993. (Photo by Frank Micelotta/Getty Images)

Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” is a new documentary about the rock star which airs on HBO May 5. The title comes from an audio montage Cobain made in the late 1980s, before his band Nirvana became one of the biggest acts in the world.

Frances Bean Cobain, Kurt’s daughter, who executive produced the film, gave director Brett Morgen full access to her father’s notebooks, home recordings, videos and drawings, and Morgen uses the materials to let Kurt tell his own story. The result is what Rolling Stone rightly calls “The most intimate rock doc ever.”

Morgen is no stranger to movies about larger-than-life figures. His movie about film producer Robert Evans, “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” was critically acclaimed. When Brendan met with him, he asked Morgen to tell him about Kurt’s youth in the small logging town of Aberdeen, Washington, circa 1967.

Kurt Cobain at 2 years old. Photo Credit: Wendy O'Connor/Courtesy of HBO
Kurt Cobain at 2 years old. Photo Credit: Wendy O’Connor/Courtesy of HBO

Brett Morgen: I think that Kurt had a very idyllic first couple of years in this world. He was the first born of a very large extended family with several uncles and aunts, who would all fight over him.

He was absolutely adorable and I think that’s a part of this story, too, is how attractive he was as a child. So people are fawning over him, and he was the center of attention at every function.

Brendan Francis Newnam: But then he went from being the golden child, almost literally, with his  white-blond hair, to becoming a hot potato once he was diagnosed as hyperactive. And then his parents divorced, and we watch home videos of him becoming an increasingly disaffected youth, being passed between his parents — Wendy Cobain and Donald Cobain — and his grandparents and his neighbors. No one really even wanted him around.

Brett Morgen: Yeah, no one wanted him, man. I mean, look. Wendy says that — Wendy views it totally differently.

In her mind, she never rejected Kurt, and that he would come over for lunch and that her door was always open. And I was like, “Well, Wendy, the person who saying this in the movie is Kurt.” And she goes, “Well, that’s just not true!” You know? “Kurt lied!” And then I said look, whether he didn’t have a place to stay for one day or one year, it really doesn’t matter. He experienced that as a form of rejection and abandonment.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah. So, the first part of your documentary looks primarily at his childhood and how it influenced his career. The second part, his development as a musician. And then, Nirvana’s album “Nevermind” comes out, becomes a huge success, and we watch Kurt trying to cope with the pressures of being a celebrity, as well as struggling with heroin addiction.

Now, you have lots of home videos from that time, and I’m wondering, how did it feel to kind of dig into the day-in, day-out of his life at this point? Because even watching them made me feel a little sick to my stomach because it was so sad.

Brett Morgen: Yeah, it’s weird that you looped them all together though, and said that you get sick by them because I’m like, as you said, that I’m thinking to myself that Kurt and Courtney stuff before Frances is born, I find hilarious with undercurrent of darkness that I don’t think the audience really registers.

The undercurrent of darkness is they’re constantly talking about the media, mocking their image in the media, or the way other people perceive them. And that, to me, was really disturbing. But on the surface of it, it’s Lucy and Ricky, and it’s really funny. Like it’s laugh-out-loud funny. We were at South by Southwest — I couldn’t even hear the dialogue because people were laughing so loud.

Brendan Francis Newnam: I think I just locked into the underlying darkness part and the desperation of addiction. Their apartment is like this dingy mess, their bodies look so unhealthy.

Brett Morgen: Yeah, but, you know that a lot of that stuff, you know, the bathroom scene, he wasn’t — they were sober. And I know that for a fact because I know where that tape began. I mean, the later stuff for sure, that stuff is so disturbing.

It’s so ugly and it’s brutal and you don’t wanna see it, and I hate that it’s there. But it serves a very valuable purpose. I felt that they were earned, that they would come at the end of the film, and it is that moment that you actually are looking at Kurt completely doped up…

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah, holding his baby.

Photo Credit: © The End of Music, LLC/ Courtesy HBO
Kurt Cobain and his daughter Frances Cobain. Photo Credit: © The End of Music, LLC/ Courtesy HBO

Brett Morgen: Yeah, and that’s the thing is it’s not showing a junkie, it’s showing a father and a junkie, and the struggle and the battle. And he’s losing the battle, and succumbing to the demons. And, what’s so tragic is that you can see what a good father he is.

I mean, that’s the thing that just breaks my heart… it breaks my heart for Frances because I feel she was deprived of a wonderful father. I think Kurt had — some men don’t take to newborns, but not Kurt. One time I asked — I think during the interview, I asked Courtney, you know she thought Kurt was a good dad and she said, “For a junkie!”

Brendan Francis Newnam: I wanna ask you about Courtney’s involvement in this film. She gave you several interviews, unfettered access to the storage locker of Kurt’s things. But, she’s a pretty divisive figure among Nirvana fans, Cobain fans. In your movie she even reads a letter from a fan accusing her of ruining him.

Going into this project, what were your thoughts? How did you decide you were gonna deal with the friction that kind of always surrounds her?

Brett Morgen: The thing with Courtney is — there’s the media perception of Courtney, and then there’s Kurt’s perception of Courtney, and what mattered to me was Kurt’s perception of Courtney. And as you’re sculpting this as a director, one of the big challenges was how do I get the audience to liberate themselves from the media representations of Courtney and allow themselves to be open enough to experience her through Kurt’s eyes?

Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love circa 1992. Photo Credit: Dora Handel/Corbis/Courtesy of HBO
Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love circa 1992. Photo Credit: Dora Handel/Corbis/Courtesy of HBO

I will say that it wasn’t incredibly that challenging because, you look at the footage and there’s a lot of love. The footage that we have in that film of Kurt and Courtney goes from their first early, early meetings in October ’91, and then we pick it up in February ’92 and certainly there’s no question that they’re completely compatible. And then the last time we see them, it’s Christmas ’93, and in that moment, Courtney says with a pure, genuine look in her eye, “You know, I’m really happy.” And Kurt says “Yeah, me too,” and it’s totally pure.

Brendan Francis Newnam: It is kind of a touching moment, and yet, it’s the last time we see them. Not long after that, Kurt kills himself and your movie ends kind of abruptly, with a black screen, and then you tell us the date he killed himself. Did you choose to stop there because Kurt was no longer creating anything and since his output was the centerpiece of the film, it didn’t make sense to keep going or…

Brett Morgen: That’s a good — that’s true, man. There’s some truth to that, but really, there’s no way to neatly end this movie, you know? He died. He’s not here anymore.

And I wasn’t gonna wrap it up in a bow, and then cut to a bunch of people around with flowers and some funeral or… You know, Kurt had a very painful life, but his legacy lives on through all of these people all over the world, and he’s touched so many lives, that wouldn’t be honest. That’d be disingenuous. It’d be like a Hollywood ending.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah.

Brett Morgen  Photo Credit: The End of Music, LLC / Courtesy HBO
Director Brett Morgen Photo Credit: The End of Music, LLC / Courtesy HBO

Brett Morgen: And, death is sudden, suicide is sudden, and there’s no catharsis. When I showed the film to Frances the first time, she said, “You know what my favorite part was?” And I said, “What was that?” And she said, “The end.” I said “What part of the end?” And she said, “When it cuts to black.”

And at first, I had a sort of knee-jerk reaction,”Wait a second. Is she telling me her favorite part of this film I just, like, worked my ass off on this film and her favorite part of the movie is the black leader?” But, I knew what she meant.