Krist Novoselic doesn’t say the word “suicide” when he talks about his friend and Nirvana bandmate for a new documentary. He doesn’t have to.
HBO’s fully authorized biopic project, “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck,” relies heavily on the imagery Cobain himself created before taking his own life.
“A lot of those messages,” Novoselic points out, “are just plain as day.”
And there are so many messages. “Montage of Heck,” named after one of Cobain’s mixtapes, bombards the screen with lyrics, to-do lists, love notes and musings to construct a roughly chronological biography of Generation X’s reluctant spokesman.
By the time it had crystallized into its final three-man lineup, Nirvana had absorbed the full spectrum of upstart rock: the Minneapolis sound of the Replacements and Hüsker Dü, the Boston post-punk Pixies’ surf pop, Bad Brains’ D.C. hardcore and so on.
But the influenced would become the influential: Sometime during the one-term George H.W. Bush presidency, Nirvana’s relatively small discography would be refracted into a legacy that continues today. Six years after his death, Rolling Stone named Cobain its Artist of the Decade.
Portrait of pain
Today, having a favorite band is a fleeting concept for some, thanks to single-serving streaming radio and MP3 files.
But in the years between Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, listening to the wrong bands — and wearing their T-shirts — could have real consequences. Ask the West Memphis Three.
Twenty-five years later, the same song by the Cure that once got me hauled into the guidance counselor’s office plays gently above shoppers’ heads at the Hy-Vee.
But in 1991, there was a darkness in many teens that wasn’t going to be reached by any amount of INXS or U2. America’s enemies had new, unfamiliar faces. At least we didn’t have to hide under our desks in A-bomb drills anymore.
Most teens understood the ironic intent behind their gory Iron Maiden T-shirts. Their moms were never going to get it, let alone approve a ticket to the satirical theater of a Slayer concert. Few authority figures could grasp the concept of cathartic anger if black eyeliner was involved.
And when Nirvana showed up, it didn’t get a pass from the moralizing, though Cobain looked more like a fussy old lady than a Satan worshipper in his drab cardigans. As though well-adjusted kids were going to be made into heroin addicts by putting on flannel shirts.
Cobain himself seems happy enough as a kid in the earliest home movie clips shown in “Montage,” an adorable, “always busy” blond toddler opening toy pianos, record players and drumsticks on Christmas.
When his hyperactive antics got to be too much, Cobain’s mom tried giving him Ritalin, causing him to “really go off the rails.” The early criticism about his boyish energy set up a lifetime fear of embarrassment, coupled with a need for attention stemming from his parents’ divorce.
“He wanted to be the most loved,” his stepmother says.
Instead, Kurt was passed around family homes every few weeks at the worst possible time: junior high.
Director Brett Morgen, who also made the Rolling Stones documentary “Crossfire Hurricane,” uses animated sequences paired with narration to fill in visual gaps in Cobain’s tale, with limited success. Cobain’s own harshly chosen words — about his first sexual experience, discovering pot and his first suicide attempt — keep these cartoons from sliding into affectation.
The orchestral version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” that accompanies these scenes is interesting for a while, but in time it just makes you yearn for a different song. (For a project that brags about having access to everything Kurt Cobain, “Montage” sticks mostly to the obvious singles off “Nevermind” to set its tone.)
The rest of Morgen’s movie is a happily schizophrenic, Reefer Madness-style mashup of home movies, confessional interviews and concert footage as Nirvana starts to find success. It becomes clear that Cobain was that sullen kid in your high school with the disturbing notebook of intricate drawings, a seething mass of talent and insecurity.
And “Montage” goes deep within those Mead college-ruled pages, letting an invisible hand edit the lyrics to what would become hit singles years later. There’s also a good deal of pointing the camera at archival publications: One teen magazine sports a headline reading “NIRVANA: The Guns N Roses It’s OK to Like.”
These minute reading assignments flash by at a frenetic pace, like what must have been going on in Cobain’s head as he restlessly moved from guitar to canvas to piano as a kid, according to his sister Kim.
“Kurt’s brain was just constantly going,” she says.
Too close for comfort
After awhile, “Montage of Heck” suffers from too much discussion of Cobain’s introversion and sensitivity, at the expense of ignoring his perfectionist creative process. It could use more guitar riffs and fewer home movies of topless Courtney Love.
Love, who seems to be in control of her interview session, nevertheless manages to make herself look awful, especially with her chilling rationalizations for doing heroin while pregnant.
The footage of Kurt and Courtney as a married couple does help explain their intense attraction and bond, but no amount of cute baby moments with Frances Bean can hide what a disaster their union was. “Are they John and Yoko?” a scathing Vanity Fair article asked at the time. “Or Sid and Nancy?”
It was a time when journalists started making noise about the Cobains’ drug binges and the fact that Kurt looked “fragile.” When the news of his death hit my college newsroom, I remember someone saying that you couldn’t be that surprised, as a fan: This was a guy who put a song named “Hate Myself and Wanna Die” on his last record.
“Montage of Heck” achieves its goal of intimacy almost too well. It’s such a tightly cropped portrait that criticizing it feels like criticizing Cobain. But it’s too long and a bit repetitive, and it keeps trying to explain its subject through his own scribblings long after his soul has been laid bare by more direct means. It’s a hard sell to begin with, frankly: “Hey guys, who’s up for watching Kurt Cobain beat his head against his childhood pain for two hours?”
But at its many great moments, Morgen’s movie is an eye-level, straight-on gaze at the soul that would turn rock music on its head when it was so desperately needed. It finds just the right words and notes to slam the sentimental hopes of an awkward kid against his desperate loneliness. Just like a good Nirvana song.
Follow Sara Smith on Twitter: @SarawatchesKC.
WHERE TO WATCH
“Montage of Heck” premieres at 8 p.m. May 4 on HBO.
The curse of interesting times: A Kurt Cobain timeline
Feb. 20, 1967
Kurt Cobain is born.
Cobain meets bass player Krist Novoselic.
Oct. 19, 1987
The stock market crashes, dropping 22.6 percent on what comes to be known as “Black Monday.”
Nirvana’s original lineup is formed.
Nov. 8, 1988
George H.W. Bush defeats Michael Dukakis to become the 41st U.S. president.
March 24, 1989
The Exxon Valdez oil tanker crashes in Prince William Sound.
Nirvana’s first album, “Bleach,” is released on Sub Pop.
Nov. 9, 1989
The Berlin Wall comes down.
Aug. 2, 1990
Iraq’s Saddam Hussein invades Kuwait.
Sept. 25, 1990
Drummer Dave Grohl joins Nirvana.
Nirvana signs with Geffen Records.
Aug. 23, 1991
Nirvana performs a celebrated set at the Reading Festival in England.
Sept. 24, 1991
“Nevermind” is released. It goes on to sell 10.6 million copies.
Oct. 12, 1991
“Nevermind” achieves gold album status.
Oct. 17, 1991
Nirvana plays the Union Ballroom at KU in Lawrence, with Paw and Urge Overkill also on the bill.
Oct. 31, 1991
Nirvana records a Seattle concert for what would become its “Live at the Paramount” DVD.
Dec. 26, 1991
The Soviet Union collapses.
Jan. 11, 1992
“Nevermind” hits No.1 on the Billboard chart, thanks to near-constant MTV airplay of the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video. That week, the band plays on “Saturday Night Live.”
Feb. 24, 1992
Cobain marries musician Courtney Love.
Nirvana appears on the cover of Rolling Stone, with the magazine calling Seattle “the new Liverpool.”
April 29, 1992
Los Angeles erupts in rioting after the acquittal in the Rodney King beating case.
Firehose bassist Mike Watt writes about his flannel shirt for Details magazine.
Aug. 18, 1992
Frances Bean Cobain is born.
Aug. 30, 1992
Nirvana plays at Reading Festival again, this time recording its 2009 “Live at Reading” CD/DVD. In a memorable stunt, Cobain was brought onstage in a wheelchair to begin the band’s set, which he performed in a hospital gown.
Nov. 3, 1992
Bill Clinton is elected president, unseating the first President Bush.
Dec. 15, 1992
“Incesticide,” a disc of Nirvana rarities and B-sides, is released.
Feb. 26, 1993
The World Trade Center’s parking structure is bombed by terrorists.
April 19, 1993
A 51-day standoff between Branch Davidians and law enforcement in Waco, Texas, ends in a raging inferno, killing 76 people.
Sept. 21, 1993
“In Utero” is released, featuring the single “Heart Shaped Box.”
Details runs a story titled “Nirvana-bes: A Bluffer’s Guide to the New Indie-Rock Superstars.”
Oct. 21, 1993
Nirvana plays Memorial Hall in Kansas City, Kan., along with Jawbreaker and Mudhoney.
Nov. 18, 1993
Nirvana tapes “MTV Unplugged” in New York City.
Jan. 7, 1994
In Seattle, Nirvana plays what would be its last U.S. show.
March 4, 1994
Cobain overdoses on sleeping pills and is comatose for 24 hours.
April 8, 1994
Cobain is found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in Seattle.