Sunday, May 10, 2015

Review of 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'

It must have been either the summer or fall of 1994 when I purchased a VHS copy of Live! Tonight! Sold Out!!, a quasi-documentary, compilation concert video by Nirvana. Basically, the film was composed of bits of home video and found footage, intertwined with live performances from their various concerts. It was almost exactly like the Smashing Pumpkins' Vieuphoria, also released in 1994, a long-form music video, with weirdness combined with concert footage. I was an impressionable teenager at the time, so I thought that's what bands did, and acted, and so I adopted the weirdness-mixed-with-musician-ness in my own personality.

Of course, nobody understood. Nobody ever understands ... sigh. (I've comes to terms with this, so you the reader need not worry.)

Fast-forward to 2015, with the release of the documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck on HBO. The first thing that struck me, as I watched the film, is that I've seen a lot of this already. Live! Tonight! Sold Out!! used a lot of the same footage. In any case, where Sold Out!! focused on the band as a whole, Montage's focus is on the life of frontman Kurt Cobain, from his birth to roughly Nirvana's MTV Unplugged performance in late 1993, with mentions of his winter 1994 overdose and spring 1994 death near the end of the film.

I would like to take this opportunity to evaluate this film with what I wrote about earlier, with an addition. My evaluations of "art" now have three dimensions: (1) Art vs. Audience, (2) Art vs. Other Art, and I would like to add now, (3) Art vs. Artist.

The obvious audience for this film are Nirvana fans from the 1990s, who all have since outlived Kurt himself. I can only imagine my experience of this film with this context in mind. With that said, I don't think Montage has taught me anything new about Kurt Cobain. This film pretty much follows the narrative in Michael Azerrad's Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana, at least how I remember the book, when I read it twenty-some years ago. It's cool to have the non-controversial Kurt Cobain come to life, so to speak, in this documentary film. The best surprise of the film is being introduced to the Nirvana-Screaming Trees collaboration of Leadbelly's "Ain't It a Shame." Of course, that track has been around -- on YouTube -- for years, but it had slipped past my radar until now, basically. I think Nirvana fans, in general, will like this. It's probably also somewhat accessible to fans of music and music history, the Sold Out!!-type weirdness might be off-putting to wider audiences, though.

Art vs. Audience: Montage is somewhere between accessible and inaccessible. If 0 = inaccessible, and 10 = accessible, Montage is a 5.

Montage is a documentary film. Unlike "conventional" documentary films (I took a documentary criticism course over a decade ago, so I've learned that there are various kinds of "conventional" documentaries), Montage seems to have several stylistic choices, from A-roll interviews with B-roll footage, to audio footage with animation, to Sold Out!!-style montages of heck. It's kind of all over the place. I was so wowed by the animated sequences, I thought an animated documentary might have been a solid, sole stylistic choice.

Art vs. Other Art: Montage is relatively unconventional, due to its stylistic inconsistency. If 0 = conventional, and 10 = unconventional, Montage is an 8. These numbers really mean nothing.

Brett Morgen directed Montage. He also directed the documentary The Kid Stays in the Picture. When I took the aforementioned documentary criticism course, one of my classmates wrote a paper on The Kid Stays in the Picture. I have never seem that particular documentary (I wrote my term paper on a documentary on Elvis impersonators called Almost Elvis). Other than Montage, I am unfamiliar with Morgen's work, but both Wikipedia and IMDb give him a relatively sizable filmography.

Art vs. Artist: Montage is one of many films by Brett Morgen. I can't say whether or not it is departure from the filmmaker's previous work, or if this is Morgen's consistent style. This is my bad as a reviewer/blogger. If 0 = consistent, and 10 = departure, then by default, and my fault, Montage is a 5, for now.

In conclusion, if you're like me, after watching Montage of Heck, you'll access your Nirvana MP3s (Bleach, Nevermind, Incesticide, In Utero, MTV Unplugged, Live from the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah, Nirvana's greatest hits album, B-sides from overpriced imported CD singles, and whatever else you may have -- ripped from now-stored away CDs), set the playlist to random, and blog about Nirvana. Because of the film, I am listening to Nirvana's music with my long-lost teenager's ears, and not the cynical, ever-aging ears of one who has outlived Kurt Cobain. It's good to be reminded of the alchemy created by screaming vocals, clever melodies, sloppy guitar (I would describe Kurt's non-melodic guitar solos as "sloppy jazz," the blues scale but not quite right), straightforward bass, and heavy drums. That was Nirvana.

Post-script: Sunday was also Mother's Day, so I hope you all had a wonderful Mother's Day. Cheers!

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