Monday, August 3, 2015

Montage of Heck: the critically acclaimed documentary that’s not a documentary at all.

tl;dr — wrote this when the doc first premiered on HBO, but didn’t post. The portrait of Cobain offered is simplistic and factually questionable; plus the director made it clear he didn’t care about truth, just the art. When Courtney Love takes credit for causing Cobain’s suicide attempt and successful suicide, it’s almost laughable. 
For a more fascinating, nuanced picture of Cobain as a person and as a part of the Seattle music context (both pre- and post-MTV explosion) I HIGHLY HIGHLY HIGHLY recommend Everybody Loves our Town: An Oral History of Grunge by Mark Yarm (on tumblr: grungebook). It covers more than just Nirvana, but obvious they are a crucial part of the history of that city’s rise to music prominence. (See chapters 26 & 32, though even more in that book is essential reading.)


When Brett Morgan’s documentary skipped over Nirvana’s jump from SubPop (for whom they recorded Bleach) to Geffen, I realized I wasn’t going to get what I thought from Montage of Heck. Up until that point I had held out hope that a nuanced picture of Kurt Cobain, the person, would develop. Part of understanding him, in my opinion, involves his experience as a businessman. His relationship to the band members, the managers, the record labels, the club owners, and other musicians all matters. Instead, the focus remains on Cobain’s 2 important romantic relationships, the latter shown through long home video segments. 
Put plainly, Montage of Heck ends up not going off the rails, but revealing that it was not on any rails to begin with
For a documentary intent on showing Cobain as ambitious but tortured by mental and physical illness (stomach issues & eventual heroin use), this film fails to explore the ambition and fails to do more than provide his parents’ vague comments about his childhood hyper activity troublesome behavior, which led to him being shuffled around between family members. 
The band interviews that are shown (from after the band makes it big) offer a relatively tame image of a bored, disaffected singer uninterested in anything except being on stage. But is that an act or real or both? In an article for MTV.com, Brenna Elrich reports that Cobain apparently "talked for hours with journalists even though he said he hated the press”. The documentary shows him quipping a few grumpy one-liners while Novolselic and Grohl handle things with the professional-though-dismissive manner we’d expect from a band that consistently appeased the very media moguls that irked them (i.e., they hate MTV but have multiple MTV performances, videos, interviews and the seemingly timeless UnPlugged performance). While there might not be footage of those chatty interviews, there must be some journalists somewhere willing to talk about them, right? If the documentary not only shows Cobain on camera and grumpy but also provides info about how Cobain might be coaxed into longer conversations, then maybe I’d get a sense of a complex person. One who loves the spotlight or loves talking even if the overwhelming pressure drains him. The doc does stress that Cobain was a hyper kid, so the gloomy adult musician seems like a sad deterioration, but the presentation is very basic “disaffected youth starts band, lucks into fame.” Who was able to get him to perk up? His girlfriend Tracy Marander basically supported him for a year before he moved on and I found that segment compelling (check the link for brief write up of the actual mix tape Montage of Heck, created while Cobain lived with Marander).
I think there are two weaknesses at play: the documentary relies heavily on Cobain’s journals, some of which were already published back in 2002. There are plenty of shots of the pages, some of the pages even get animated by the filmmaker. It’s an interesting aesthetic element but feels like a flimsy Ken Burns-style gimmick. Using them isn’t a problem. Relying heavily on them is. 
The second weakness, and this one is why I think this is not so much a documentary as a montage (get it?!): a striking lack of perspective. 
Most of the things we hear are from his family—a reasonable and necessary and interesting contribution to any portrait of an artist—but where are the other artists? Where are the journalists? What about the music producers who worked with him and had to manage his moods and musical perfectionism? (Perfectionism and slackerism: Cobain reportedly threw together lyrics for some songs last minute, apparently not caring about meaning as much as sound. Meanwhile he labored over lyrics to other songs, apparently caring very much about the meaning.).
The absence of voices is obvious, loud, suggestive, but ultimately unexplained. While Morgan can be heard asking a few questions, a narrator might’ve helped fill in some gaps. 
Let’s consider some of the key absences, as I see them:
Buzz Osborne of The Melvins (aside from his “appearance” via a tape recorded conversation about why high school sucks). He wrote a great review of Montage of Heck which is worth reading even if you LIKE it because it points out why this film should not be used for the factual understanding.  From a Rolling Stone write up, Osborne says:
“Would they feel better if Kurt Cobain did 'fuck a fat retard.' Do they feel better now? Do they feel better if he actually was suicidal? That makes you feel better? None of that's true. I don’t think that's a good legacy for him to have out there. I know it's not true. It's that simple."Read more: h
Plus, Osborne has been critical of the cult of Cobain. Check out this telling, fantastic, and harsh quote from 2013: 
“People have said to me, which I think is crazy, ‘Do you ever get jealous that Kurt Cobain got fame and money?’,” says Osborne. “And I go, ‘Kurt Cobain is f—ing dead. Are you kidding? What are you talking about? You think I would trade places with a dead guy?’ Yeah, I wish I had been more famous, and had more money, and was dead. No, no, no. I win. I win. He doesn’t win. He loses. He’s a major loser. His f—ing loss. He left a baby at the mercy of that woman [Courtney Love]. And, it couldn’t be worse. There’s nothing good about any of that.” 
Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, musician who encouraged Cobain & co. to move to a bigger label.
Pat Smear, who played guitar with Nirvana during the last six months and might have an interesting perspective on Cobain (especially seeing as Smear ends up in Grohl’s band Foo Fighters. Knowing Grohl’s opinions of Love, I suspect Smear would have loads of insight).
Where are the people who run SubPop? Where’s anyone from David Geffen? Where’s their co-manager Danny Goldberg?*
Dave Grohl’s input was apparently not sought until late in the filmmaking, though his perspective can be seen in the Foo Fighter’s documentary (if you can stomach such a thing**). 
When I consider that this documentary might be intended for people who were not aware of Cobain and Nirvana in the early 90s because of disinterest or simply because they were too young, then these missing voices are even more crucial to completing a portrait of Cobain. Watching home movies, looking at journal entries, and listening to Love or Cobain’s parents speak (with no counter-perspective in most cases so who can tell what’s valuable and what’s utter BS), is simply not a complete picture of Cobain as a person. Son and husband, check. Businessman? Musician? Friend? Enemy? 
I know I’m old but I’m also not impressed by a documentary that fails to explore outside perspectives along with Cobain’s own written thoughts. 
Which brings me to something I thought was very odd: 
Cobain’s suicide note. We don’t get to see it. 
I don’t want to hear Love read it. The movie fails to disentangle Love and Cobain for much of the last hour, so ending with her reading it (a recording which exists) would just be one Love-moment too many. But that note, that handwriting, that commentary needs to be included amongst all the scrawled documents that were used because it is his final statement. It is not a conclusion, it’s one of many things he said. Why are his journals more important than his suicide note? His journal are filled with all sorts of silly nonsensical things. I saw the phrase “abort christ” on screen a bunch of times. I saw his love notes. I saw band names, track lists, plans to practice, letters to band members. But I don’t get the suicide note? The last thing he wrote? I don’t get some way to see what he said after seeing all the other stuff? (And yes, I know that the letter can be found online. But if the documentary is meant to literally document Cobain, then the document matters.
Morgan says that there was no way to put a Hollywood ending on the documentary. But what he has done is failed to create any narrative whatsoever. Did he fail to ask the right questions, leading to subpar material? Did he fail to get access to people that might offer more nuance to Cobain the businessman or Cobain the musician who collaborated with a number of people (including Love on Hole’s album)? Did he simply try so hard to avoid repeating what other documentaries and books have covered about the band that he left out aspects of Cobain the person? I don’t know. 


In the end, my response here has more to do with the fact that Montage of Heck been so widely praised even though I see a documentary that fails at its core purpose and fails to add to the scholarship that already exists. If anything, I hope that people are inspired to read more about the Seattle music scene, to understand the context, to understand the way heroin played such a role in a number of musicians’ lives. (If you want a really stark anti-heroin story, it’s not Cobain. It’s Layne Staley, singer from Alice in Chains.) Since it’s meant to be the portrait of Cobain, seeing as Frances Bean gave such access to Cobain’s materials, I’d wished for more than a sketch.
*If I missed any of these people in the documentary, it’s likely because there’s no real attempt to identify places and people clearly. Dates are missing from the shows featured.
**I’m not a big fan of Grohl’s personality and behavior, though his drumming is stellar.