A portrait of a beautiful, damaged soul – Jack Woodward reviews the ‘eye-opening’ documentary that is Montage of Heck.
Calling Nirvana ‘the Beatles of our time’ is predictable (and a hyperbole). Yet it’s the easiest way to get across what a movement Nirvana were back in the 1990s, when the band were headlining Reading Festival, performing their platinum-selling hits. Kurt Kobain sung ‘I feel stupid and contagious’ on thousands of cassette and CD players around the world, defining a generation angry at themselves for not fitting in, furious at everyone for pushing them away. They remain a rite of passage for all teenagers resentfully annoyed at their parents, and to this day, the suicide of Kurt haunts many. His memory stays burned into the minds of everyone who knew the tortured blue-eyed soul, and there has been much analysis of the subject.
The problem with these previous explorations is exactly that – Nirvana is treated as a subject. But at the heart of the band was just some guy. That’s what makes Montage of Heck an eye-opening, powerful piece of work. It humanizes Kurt on a level never seen before by focusing entirely on him and his life, drawing him as the regular, irreplaceable, flawed person he was. The exploration is made extra special by director Brett Morgan emphasizing Kurt’s art; long segments of the film cut short the talking head interviews to transport us into his drawings, notebook scribblings, songs and archival footage, letting them speak for themselves. Occasionally, gorgeous rotoscoped animation takes over as Kurt’s home recordings are heard, showing what Kurt was probably doing whilst he made them. The eerily calm covers of Nirvana’s iconic songs form part of the background soundtrack and add a nice touch too.
The end result is a dark, disturbing documentary that places you in the shoes of the troubled rockstar like no other. You start to understand why Kurt’s lyrics focused on guilt when his father constantly ridiculed him for being the hyper child he was in the 1950s, a time when being abnormal was the worst thing imaginable. You can see how Kurt felt rejected when he was surrounded by family members who seemed happier to kick him out into someone else’s lap than figure out why he was so rebellious. The old concert footage, angsty atmosphere intact, makes you feel as though you’re there. And you see that it wasn’t Courtney Love’s fault. The home videos of them with their daughter plainly shows the reality of young adults madly, deeply in love. It was simply a bad idea for a man struggling with heroin addiction to marry someone else with the same problem. It’s an honest, deeply personal insight that gets so intimate you jump at the dark abyss as it stares right back.
Case in point. In the opening minutes, ‘Territorial Pissings’ is playing. Slowly, the music fades out, until you only hear Kurt singing. It unravels into screaming, screaming from the top of his lungs, with an anguished, genuine pain that’s unnerving to hear before it suddenly stops.
Montage of Heck makes you see how Curt was always crying for help. He never got it because nobody realized he was serious. “Rock on, man!”