Cobain as he was: ‘Montage of Heck’ is an uncomfortably comprehensive documentary

Courtney Love and Kurt Cobain

Three and a half stars

Kurt Cobain:Montage of Heck, May 4, 9 p.m., HBO.

At what point does unfettered intimate access become too much? That’s not a question that really concerns Brett Morgen in his uncomfortably comprehensive documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, for which he had unprecedented access to the journals, recordings and home movies of the late Nirvana frontman. Montage of Heck is a cradle-to-grave portrait of Cobain that begins with home movies of him as an infant and ends a month before his 1994 suicide at age 27, and it’s more about individual psychology than about rock music. Many of Nirvana’s major milestones are represented solely via magazine headlines, and Morgen interviews only one of Cobain’s bandmates (Krist Novoselic).

But as an examination of Cobain as a human being, Montage of Heck is thorough, sympathetic and often heartbreaking. Morgen uses Cobain’s own words, whether written in his journals, spoken on home recordings or given on the record in interviews, to tell the story of a troubled artistic genius. He doesn’t downplay Cobain’s talent, letting Cobain’s mother talk about her son’s creativity at the same time she talks about his temper and his drug problems. Although Morgen had the full cooperation of Cobain’s daughter Frances Bean (who is one of the movie’s executive producers) and widow Courtney Love (who is one of the interview subjects), Montage of Heck is not a puff piece or a rosy gloss on history. Especially as it gets toward the end of Cobain’s life, the movie doesn’t shy away from his self-destructive tendencies, and the home movies showing him strung out and sometimes incoherent at home with Love and Frances Bean can be hard to watch.

Those deeply personal moments, certainly never intended to be shared when they were captured, may cross a line for some viewers. Just because Cobain’s music touched millions doesn’t mean that every private moment of his life deserves to be on public view, and Morgen sometimes struggles to justify including as much of those home movies as he does. It helps that Montage of Heck is not some tabloid hackwork, though; Morgen (The Kid Stays in the Picture, Chicago 10) skillfully uses animation, music (with various instrumental arrangements of Nirvana songs) and, as the title indicates, montage to bring Cobain’s inner thoughts to life.

A big part of Cobain’s music was about expressing his inner turmoil, and this movie accomplishes that again in ways that are often unexpected and moving.

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