Kurt Cobain has been called the canary in the coalmine of American youth, as well as the icon of the dying Age of Pisces. Yet, there was a legend built around the artist's entrance into "the 27 club" when he committed suicide in 1994, taking away from the timelessness of his universal message.
The punk movement's liberation from form freed Cobain's genius to make Nirvana music out of the most basic human expression: the mournful cry for help. The grunge movement was encapsulated in Cobain's messages of toxic youth in astonishingly woeful songs of despair such as "Smells Like Teen Spirit". No one recognized the S.O.S. because it was hiding in plain sight, as genius typically does. (Film still of Cobain © The End of Music, LLC)
Brett Morgan's "Cobain: Montage of Heck" brilliantly revisions this legacy through the unexpected gift: a treasure trove of autobiography in art. The title of this exceptionally moving tribute to the late rock star comes from one of Cobain's mixed-media works appearing in the film.
The montage is a clue to what awaits the unsuspecting fan of Nirvana's music: a unity of transcendent personal narrative rarely attempted, never mind achieved, in contemporary multimedia art practice. We learn that "artist" was an identity Cobain refused for himself, for there was a deep humiliation complex compelling him to secret away his most intimate self-revelations. That these arose at the age of three--with the idealism of a pure spirit seizing life with a creative gusto--was an early sign of his genius.
Brett Morgan (right), introduced to the capacity audience by the Berlinale Panorama director, Wieland Speck, still seemed in awe of the "unheard of" total creative freedom provided by the Cobain family. Courtney Love had sought him out on the strength of his acclaimed "The Kid Stays in the Picture", which transformed Robert Evans' Hollywood legend--dress designer turned actor transformed into pioneering film impresario--into an epic mythology of death and rebirth.
(Photo by LPS)
Morgan was given the keys to a storehouse of unpublished material for which no one had previous access. These included over a hundred tapes made by Cobain and a treasure trove of mixed media expression. These included an astounding account of his loss of virginity to a handicapped girl which made him a pariah at school; secreted away so no one would read it, the story sources Cobain's dis-ease within his own body by way of a gruesome intimacy with an external object. The stark narrative comes to life through animation executed in somber hues.
A glamorous presence at the Berlin premiere, Courtney Love has transported her own participation in the Cobain myth from doppelganger to the keeper of a legacy, with the film containing the stark evidence of her ability to see Cobain's genius and courage...
"Cobain: Montage of Heck" director Brett Morgan with widow Courtney Love and Michael Stipe on the red carpet of the premiere during the 65th Berlinale International Film Festival at Kino International on February 7, 2015 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Luca Teuchmann/Getty Images)
...to allow the filmmaker full creative control, resulting in his placement of a self-mirroring heroine-fueled home video collaboration into the context of the underworld descent for which Cobain sacrficed his global career-- and ultimately his life. From the perspective of 65. Berlinale, this astonishing never-seen archive is further testimony for the death/rebirth mythology surrounding the emergence of the Aquarian archetype of equal partnership, with the scabs of the disintegrated Pisces corpus magnified in horrific close-up.
The collaboration between living and dead is so seamless that it becomes apparent that Morgan created a new cinematic "monage" form out of contextual necessity made urgent by the insistence of the art and a new century's technological innovation. Sculpting visually with sound is an apt description for this masterful blending of Cobain's multiple mediums--drawing, painting, writing, video, collage/montage and performing. The linear narrative unfolds with the transition from Cobain's human corpus (complete with a vivisection into the intestines) to his artistic ouevre as an outlet for his frenetic expression, too damming of existence to ignore.
The few talking heads (largely confined to family, his first girlfriend Tracy Marander, and Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic) are employed within the context of the director's mission: to establish the narrative arc, moving from light to dark, of an evolving persona destined to become the voice of a dying age. The opening montage of clips from a booming post-war America blend into Cobain home movies propelling the viewer into an eclipse: the gifted child of a broken home trapped in the shadow befalling an America incapable of confronting its toxic millennial youth doomed into lower life expectations than their parents.
The drawing of marionettes at the age of seven was prophetic of the strings pulling Cobain when he became the front man for the most celebrated rock band on the globe. The literal/literary metaphor of words appearing and disappearing on a loose leaf pages exhume the tormented body by means of the deconstruction and reconstruction of the archival corpus.
"I'm happy to reintroduce you to Kurt Cobain," Morgan said before the curtain opening on the Berlinale gala premiere. He told the audience that he labored eight years on the project, nearly giving up several times; yet a key turning point came when a stranger appeared unexpectedly with a box containing unseen home video footage of Cobain and Love. (Photo by LPS)
The film invites the viewer into a great act of reconciliation among those left behind, giving them a defined time and space for an essential mourning, twenty-five years after the tragedy of Cobain's death.
What "Cobain: Montage of Heck" makes starkly clear is that the director of this unforgettable film has let his tormented protagonist deliver his own blemished narrative out of the relics unearthed by this undertaking. The result is nothing short of epic.
Lisa Paul Streiteld is a critic and theorist based in Berlin.
Photos in this posting are published with the permission of Berlinale 65.