Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck / Brett Morgen / 2015 / fourstar

Active Ingredients: Intimacy; Editing of raw material; Focus on creativity
Side Effects: Simplification of psychology; Ending

[Montage of Heck is available via HBO, HBO Go and HBO Now.]

What is genius? Does it reside inside an artist, or is it bestowed upon him from the outside? How does it ignite, how is it expressed? Brett Morgen’s haunting and intimate portrait of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain doesn’t ask these questions directly, but this elusive quality of “genius” hangs over the film. Labels such as these repulsed Cobain, but his genius defined the pain and alienation he processed, the fleeting moments of joy he felt in creating and his unsuccessful attempts to disentangle himself from unwanted fame.

Montage of Heck makes it clear that genius is a perspective, a point of view towards the world which the artist cannot repress. Cobain wasn’t a genius because he wrote “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” He was a genius because he felt the world with such incredible precision and passion, filtered it through his experiences and gave it form. It’s irrelevant if you “like” his art; Montage of Heck shows that this creative process of genius hung around Cobain like a cloud, dogging him every moment of his life and influencing everything he created.

And Kurt Cobain did not just create music, he drew and painted, shot film, assembled audio collages, narrated stories, and left reams upon reams of detailed journals documenting his difficult path through life. This staggering raw material, much of it unearthed here for the first time, comprises the building blocks of Montage of Heck. Wisely, director Brett Morgen (The Kid Stays in the Picture) chooses to construct the film not as a traditional biography of Cobain or a historical narrative of Nirvana, but as an exploration of the work behind creativity, an effort to understand the strange force that led to Cobain’s sadness and produced his art. Combining interviews with dynamic animation of his journals and experiences, the film is edited with formal sophistication as well as a convincing imaginative spark of its own.

The film’s other great strength is the intuition with which Morgen renders a truthful portrait of Cobain. There are no critics or musical successors to explain Nirvana’s influence; he lets the material speak for itself, and through it articulates an image of Cobain as a deeply wounded soul, paradoxically starved for acceptance and walled off from others. Idyllic Super-8 footage of a happy infant playing with his parents gives way to the angst of a teenager and eventually to the depression and drug addiction of a young man. Video of this last stage of Cobain’s life, as a new father interacting with his child in a squalid apartment while visibly strung out on heroin, is particularly troubling, but Morgen doesn’t shy away from showing Cobain at his worst.

Apart from his remarkable creative spark, Cobain’s insecurities dominate Morgen’s vision of the man. His fear of rejection and humiliation is a theme that Morgen finds across his life. Perhaps the film underlines this fatal flaw of Cobain’s too strongly, coming just shy of naming it the culprit in his suicide, but its earnest focus on artistic expression saves it from becoming too simplistic.

The truth is, Morgen doesn’t have the answers Cobain’s fans and loved ones seek, nor does he claim to. Kurt Cobain was a complicated man and a complicated artist, a soul not reducible to any one aspect, and Montage of Heck lets his work speak to his complexity, and hint at what might have been.