Interview: The outspoken director spent eight years sifting through a ‘cold empty storage unit hidden from the world’ to find relics of Cobain that ‘were still breathing’
By Katherine Monk
PARK CITY, UTAH — A homemade cassette featuring a cover of a Beatles love song, the story of how he lost his virginity, and countless hours of home video created with Courtney Love: For 20 years, these relics salvaged from the wreckage of Kurt Cobain’s life remained unseen, and unheard, until now.
Compiled and delicately edited into a vibrantly creative portrait of the late artist by filmmaker Brett Morgen, these once-hidden fragments of a shattered soul make Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck more than just another documentary about another dead rock star.
Sifting through the contents with the careful hand and brush of a paleontologist uncovering an unknown bone, Morgen’s film shows us a different version of the now-mythical figure who’s been condensed into a souvenir of grunge, plaid and Sub-Pop’s salad days.
“What’s been said about Kurt up until now, no matter where, no matter what the format, has been fantasy,” says Morgen, his eyes filled with intensity, but his body showing the signs of fatigue before the film’s forthcoming theatrical run, slated to start in select Cineplex theatres May 4 as part of new music series.
Morgen spent eight years in the archive after receiving the green light from Love to go through the locker, located in some L.A. mini-storage, in his bid to make something worthy of Cobain’s talents. I’d say ‘legacy,’ but Morgen nearly ripped my head off when I used that word in conversation.
“This isn’t fucking about legacy! It’s not what we’re doing: FUCK THE MYTH!” he shrieks.
He says the only reason Cobain’s daughter, Frances Bean, came onboard as a producer was to untangle the weave of marketing and melodrama surrounding her late father’s persona. “She’s not in the movie. Why should she be in the movie? It’s not about her. She made this movie so people would stop deifying her father and have a better understanding of the man in there — a fallible, honest, beautiful, confused, damaged man.”
There are moments in Montage of Heck that fill you with endless empathy and heartbreak—such as listening to Cobain gently strum the chords to And I Love Her — but also scenes that prompt complete frustration, such as watching Love and Cobain surrender to their drug addiction in full view of their own camera.
“I think with this film, you will have more immediate access to Kurt than you did during his lifetime. And I hope in that creating this film, which undoes the fantasy, that the kids who have been wearing his shirts … want to wear that shirt even more now that they’ve met the man,” says Morgen, the filmmaker behind the Robert Evans doc The Kid Stays in the Picture, as well as Chicago 10.
“The thing is, Kurt didn’t do that many interviews. And when he did, he was uncomfortable and he would make shit up. The people and the public had such limited access to him,” he says.
“But Kurt left behind an audio visual biography of his life. And I look for things, and things find me. This came together and I felt very connected during the time I was working on the film. And I still feel very connected to the material, and to this person who I’ve been living with in my mind, and part of me is sad to be here because it means it’s over. I’m doing interviews… The journey is over. And um, I’ve been having a very difficult time in the last week,” he says, his voice sounding a little heavy.
“The only thing I can say about art is that this film is proof that art is organic and alive and for all these years all this stuff, this stuff was in a cold empty storage unit hidden from the world and when we opened up these boxes and put these things in the film you could see they were still breathing…”
Morgen pauses. “They were organic and alive and a part of Kurt. And it needed to come out and it needed to be shared. So much of what you see in this film wasn’t really even known by his friends or his family.”
Morgen’s mop of silvering brown hair looks like it’s trying to make its own escape as it flies off in all directions, but the director’s presence lands like an anvil on your foot. He’s been forged by fire, and he grows visibly irate when he talks about the so-called “documentary community.” He considers it more of a club, but he doesn’t want to sound like a whiner or an outsider with an axe to grind.
“I guess I just feel a little displaced in the world. I don’t do shameless bullshit. And I don’t make movies that are safe.”
Morgen says he’s happily operated on the fringes his entire life, which is the central reason why Cobain’s story was such a personal voyage.
“I came of age in the ‘80s listening to underground music like Black Flag and Minutemen and Hüsker Dü — bands like that. I graduated from high school in 1987, and pop culture was movies like Top Gun. And whatever bands were on the radio were laughable. Warrant… I think they were already playing Magic Mountain.”
Morgen smiles and his face transforms from cranky terrier to something almost cuddly.
“I did lots of drugs and was very alternative. Definitely not mainstream. We were living under Reagan and Bush and … it was so oppressive. And you never really saw anyone who looked like you on television or anywhere. Then lo and behold Nevermind comes out and suddenly the hair metal guys are embarrassed and it’s not cool to flaunt your wealth…”
Morgen says Nirvana was part of a larger social change that was taking place at the time. “Nirvana breaks out in 1991, Bill Clinton is elected president in 1992. Kurt dies in ‘94 and the Republicans take over congress. But for a time, there was an era of pure optimism in our lives, it was the perfect storm,” he says.
“Those years were Camelot in a way. And seeing how honest these guys were, they were sort of reminiscent of the Rolling Stones when they first came on the scene and people were so taken aback by them wearing their street clothes. You know? Like these guys never sold out. As Krist Novoselic points out at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Nirvana never went to the mainstream. The mainstream came to them. And it changed everything,” he says.
“I can’t think of a band since them that has had the cultural impact they have had. I can think of bigger bands and more successful bands, but can’t think of any one that has had that cultural impact.”
Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck kicks off Cineplex’s New Music at the Movies Series May 4 and May 7. The film will also start a run at the Rio Theatre in Vancouver May 16.