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” (8 p.m. Monday), 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 Husker Du, 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
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 mash-up 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 a while, “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.
If you watch
‘Montage of Heck’
When: 8 p.m. Monday