‘Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck’
Director:
Brett Morgen
Genre: Documentary
Rating: NR
5 (out of 5) Globes

Most music documentaries have no feel for music, and most biographical documentaries have no feel for the funky textures of lives. “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” belongs to both genres, and it excels at both. Its director, Brett Morgen, is one of the too few documentarians who embraces sensation and aesthetics. He doesn’t do 101s, which is not to say his non-fiction films (“The Kid Stays in the Picture,” “Chicago 10,” the stellar ESPN 30 for 30 episode “June 17, 1994”) don’t contain intel. They simply understand the limitations of cinema as a carrier of information — that they pale pitifully in comparison to a book or even an article, and serve best as a gateway into more robust reportage. At the same time, cinema is fantastic, perhaps better than any medium, at creating experiences that combine sound and image with facts and feelings.

That’s to say you won’t, despite its 2 1/2 hour length, learn everything about Kurt Cobain in “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck,” and that’s fine. The Nirvana frontman is one of the most reported-on musicians in the world, and if you need to learn more about stray bits of his life neglected by Morgen then the modern techie world has your back. But it’s rigorous in other ways. It spans his entire life, and Nirvana doesn’t explode until after the halfway mark. Up till then it’s a deeply empathic portrait of an unhappy childhood and even more disastrous teen years, with young Cobain shuffled between family members, turning into a loner who by high school says he “felt so crazy and different that people just left me alone.”

The vast surfeit of audio and visual material about Cobain, from interviews and his own art (not just music but drawings and paintings), helps Morgen complete his own, semi-subjective portrait, and animation fills in gaps where footage just doesn’t exist. But Morgen doesn’t just summarize his life. He gets in deep, digging up his passions and relevant works of art. When Morgen cues up clips from the 1979 teen rebellion movie “Over the Edge,” it’s not just a film Cobain liked but one that connects the same themes that ran through his music from one generation to the next. Speaking of which, Morgen either skips or buries the bigger songs, sometimes using instrumental versions of “All Apologies” and “Lithium”; “Smells Like Teen Spirit” doesn’t blast until the end credits. He’s not just showing off; the lack of the big hits helps create the feeling of Cobain as just a regular guy with irregular gifts who achieved fame beyond which he could handle.

Among the film’s most gutting structural choices comes at the halfway mark, when Nirvana has just recorded “Nevermind,” knows they’re about to get big but have no grasp on how big. When they become all-caps Nirvana, there doesn’t come a triumphant montage; instead we get a dispiriting dirge of press interviews, in which the shy and sometimes temperamental Cobain is instantly disillusioned with the barrage of dumb and invasive questions, pestering him to explain the unexplainable in his music or getting too personal. By the film’s last hour Cobain has retreated with Courtney Love into their own power couple safe house, holing up in an apartment to record their daily lives away from the things of man. You get to see sides of Cobain not often shown, from mundanities (him bopping around the background asking, “Do we have a turkey baster?”) to him singing “Mahna Mahna” to their infant daughter. But it doesn’t shy away from their drug habits, though it also doesn’t become presumptuous and reckless like journalists were at the time (hello again, Lynn Hirschberg!). It doesn’t even get into the final days, jumping, in one devastating cut, from a moment of turmoil — one too personal for Morgen to detail with any accuracy — right to a coldly basic text screen detailing his suicide. As intimate as “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” gets, it knows not to cross a line.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge