Kurt Cobain was famously aloof in interviews, a revered generational spokesman who was always trying to weasel out of the job. Since his death 21 years ago, the questions have only deepened. Which is what makes the new documentary “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck,”premiering on HBO May 4, such a revelation. Director Brett Morgen was granted unfettered access to Cobain’s archives, including home movies, 200 hours of unreleased music and audio recordings, 4,000 pages of writings, and a stunning collection of personal artwork, and used it to create a portrait of Cobain that’s more human—and more tragic—than we previously understood. “Just when we realize how much more there was to him, it’s over,” Morgen says. “That’s the sadness of this experience: This is the last of it.”
You tell a lot of Kurt’s story through his artwork. It’s amazing how versatile he was.
From the moment he was able to hold a paintbrush, he was creating. And he never stopped creating. Unlike most artists who work in one or two different media, Kurt worked in music, spoken word, sculpture, painting, mixed-media collages, oral soundscapes. He pretty much worked with anything he would get his hands on. His work is like an autobiography.
The film contains many home movies taken during Kurt’s decline into heroin addiction. Did you worry it could be too much?
Over the past 20 years, there’s been a romanticism of Kurt’s heroin use, because the public wasn’t confronted with the darker face of it. This film demystifies that image. But the question came up, would he want people to see this? My feeling was, we weren’t trying to put Kurt on a pedestal, and we weren’t trying to throw him on the ground and kick dirt on him. We were trying to look him in the eye.
This is the first time the Cobain family has participated in a documentary. Why now?
Once Frances [Cobain’s daughter with Courtney Love] came on board, everybody wanted to participate to support her. After I screened the film for her the first time, we embraced and she said, “Thank you; you just gave me two hours with my father that I never had.” My guess is that a lot of children whose parents commit suicide might tend to blame themselves, so to a certain extent, the film might have a liberating effect.
What you realize is, Kurt’s problems predated fatherhood and predated Courtney and predated his heroin use and predated fame.
Why do you think Kurt’s mystique remains so strong?
Kurt was able to articulate his feelings of angst and his specific life experiences better than just about anyone of my generation. But he was in the public eye for only a very brief period of time, beginning with the launch of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in ’91 and ending in April of ’94. And for a large part of those years, he was on retreat. The public had very limited access to Kurt.
He hated giving interviews and discouraged reporters from trying to understand him. Would he be annoyed that we’re all still doing it?
It was annoying to him to have to explain his work. But if nobody was asking, he would have been equally troubled. That was part of Kurt’s challenge in life. We came across several journal entries that suggest an invitation to explore. One that we show in the film says, “When you wake up, please read my diary. Look through my things, and figure me out.” I can’t help but think that if he didn’t want people to see his stuff, he might have discarded it.