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Alexandra Molotkow: Dismantling the mythology of Kurt Cobain

'He's larger than life and our culture is obsessed with dead musicians," Frances Bean Cobain told Rolling Stone, in an interview pegged to the documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck. Frances Bean, Kurt's daughter, is an executive producer; right from the beginning, she told the director, Brett Morgen, that she didn't want "the mythology of Kurt or the romanticism." The film's intent is partly to peel off his legend – it's driven by previously unseen footage and personal documents, as well as interviews with those closest to him. (It will make its Canadian premiere on April 24, as part of Toronto's Hot Docs film festival, before screening on HBO starting May 4.)

It's true that dead artists never get old. "Dying for your art" is the ultimate endorsement for it, and suffering adds value: Tragedy makes the artist forever interesting, and adds pathos to the work. Of course, romanticizing dead artists involves taking pleasure in their pain. At the same time, a romantic through line turns bad pain into good pain, and sometimes it's necessary, even for those who were there. "Kurt got to the point where he eventually had to sacrifice every bit of who he was to his art," Frances Bean says in the interview, "because the world demanded it of him."

The fact that Cobain has been ordained as a rock 'n' roll saint is a testament to how attached we are to the ordinance. Jim Morrison's flaky mystique was appropriate to his era, but Cobain stood for a mangier, more cynical generation, defined by its inability to valorize itself. He's most often associated with a banal struggle – not marginalization or madness or even addiction, but teen angst. And he never seemed all that godlike: a small, self-effacing guy in torn-up clothes, playing smart, simple rock songs decades after rock's big arrival.

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Cobain came off as genuine and basically down-to-earth – a major talent but not a virtuoso, a guy with loads of character but a life-sized personality. And he knew enough about the rock-star myth-making process to have fretted about it publicly. "I feel like people want me to die," he's quoted in the documentary, "because it would be the classic rock 'n' roll story." ("I told him not to join that stupid club," his mother famously said, after his death.)

The film tends to dramatize Cobain's torment and genius – the notebook animations are a little much – but it does make him seem human. The most striking footage is the most banal: the home movies of Cobain as an adult, not with his band mates, but with his wife and daughter.

The scenes of Cobain with wife, Courtney Love, bust the misconception that Love was some heartless succubus, siphoning off his energy for her own advancement, or that Cobain was a hapless victim thereof. In one scene, Cobain and Love goof around, half-naked, in front of the bathroom mirror. She worries that he'll screw around on tour, and about her career; he listens attentively while shaving his beard into a mustache – "It's a womb broom!" – which she begs him to keep. In another scene, Cobain films an extreme closeup of his lips mashing against hers, while Love moans. It's a little bit gross, mostly because it feels wrong to get that close to other people's intimacy.

Frances Bean was born into controversy – at the time, a Vanity Fair profile by Lynn Hirschberg alleged that Love had been using heroin during her pregnancy. But footage here shows the family lolling at home, in a state of such obvious bliss that the couple seem almost sheepish about it. The film's interview subjects speculate, as everyone has, about Cobain's inner life, the source of his torments and his creativity, but what's clearest is his capacity for affection, and the fact that he adored his kid.

"Every month I come to more optimistic conclusions," Cobain said in an interview with Rolling Stone just months before his death, the audio of which is featured in the documentary. He talks about loving his family, looking for new creative challenges; he worries that being happy might make him boring. Montage of Heck offers an in to some of the happiest moments of his life; it shows some of the most miserable as well, as when he nods off while holding Frances Bean during her first haircut. "Stop it, Kurt, you don't want our daughter to see you behaving like this," Love says. "I'm not on drugs," he whines, "I'm tired."

The film is especially painful for the fact that Cobain seems capable of fulfilment; even more, that he seems to know his own capacity for fulfilment, as well as how badly he's screwing up. The idea of the suffering demigod, torn apart by the demands of fame, is much more palatable than that of a vulnerable person on the brink of a terrible mistake.

It seems doubtful that Cobain opted to burn out rather than fade away. He doesn't come off as that vain, or anywhere near that cruel to the people he loved; he seems like a good person under bad influences, but not beyond hope. There's nothing inspiring or beautiful about his tragic death, and the least romantic part is the suggestion that it could have been otherwise.

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