Montage of Heck director Brett Morgen has said that the structure of his documentary was inspired by Lenny, Bob Fosse’s 1974 biopic about comic Lenny Bruce, another mythologized artist whose life ended tragically. The parallels are there, but visually and aurally, Montage of Heck, which debuts on HBO on May 4, feels like another ’70s classic, Apocalypse Now, with a doomed central character named Kurtz, not Kurt.
Both are vivid fever dreams, but unlike Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam War epic, Montage of Heck is no masterpiece. Those unfamiliar with Cobain’s life will be frustrated by the movie’s lack of exposition, particularly when it comes to Nirvana. (Morgen says a Dave Grohl interview was left out because it was shot after a satisfying cut of the film already had been made.) And avid fans who have read the 2001 biography Heavier Than Heaven and pored over the Cobain journal published in 2003 won’t find many revelations. (One observational morsel: Cobain’s mother and his widow, Courtney Love, look eerily similar in the talking-head footage.) But Montage of Heck is nevertheless a triumph of sensory immersion — a haunted-house ride through Cobain’s dark, fragile and tirelessly creative psyche as it is increasingly terrorized, first by his parents’ divorce and then by the runaway success of Nirvana. The paradox of that success is laid out in two sentences of a journal entry shown in the film: “I feel like I’m being evaluated 24 hours a day,” writes Cobain. And, in a subsequent passage: “God, how I love to play live.”
Thanks to the cooperation of Cobain’s family, Love and daughter Frances Bean Cobain (who’s an executive producer), Montage of Heck features a deep trove of home movies, art (from doodles to paintings), cassette recordings and other archival material, stitched together by inventive animation to give intimate glimpses of Cobain throughout his life: the precocious boy, the troubled teen, the drug-addicted rock star and the happy family man, often at the same time. A scene of Cobain nodding off while holding his daughter is particularly painful to watch; “I’m not on drugs, I’m tired,” he protests.
At its best, Montage of Heck attains a visceral brilliance, such as when scenes from the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video shoot are set to a creepy, Danny Elfman-esque children’s chorus version of the song. There’s something claustrophobic and foreboding about the combination, and Cobain, tossed aloft by moshing video extras, looks like a rag doll about to be ripped apart.
This story originally appeared in the May 9 issue of Billboard.