The man who sold the world...
Lately, rock docs have undergone a shift of focus, riffing on fandom and the myth/reality divide rather than straight, reportage-based approaches. Shane Meadows explored Stone Roses fans; Iain and Jane Pollard celebrated Nick Cave.
While no less inventive, Brett Morgen’s Kurt Cobain doc resists more experimental angles to pointed, potent effect: crafting a chronological portrait, he aims to look past the icon and into Cobain’s mind. Sketchiness with certain details aside, his success gives testimony to eight years of rigorous research, access to personal archives and a keen sense – sharp, empathetic, cinematic – of how best to deploy the material.
Drawing on home videos, drawings, scalding concert footage and 4,000 pages of notebooks, Morgen paints a stream-of- consciousness portrait, glued together with choice interviews (family, girlfriends, bassist Krist Novoselic, widow Courtney Love) like a high-grade fanzine. Both the film’s subtitle and style come from Cobain, his mindset held foremost.
There’s a real immediacy to Morgen’s recreations of his troubled teens in Aberdeen, Washington. Shuttled between divorced parents, Cobain embraced pot and punk to salve his stomach-ulcer pains and alienation, a situation rendered with psychological and cinematic smarts in Waking Life-ish animated sequences.
Nirvana’s ascendancy is rushed through, giving a visceral flavour of how early sessions (rough but thrilling) rocketed thrillingly into the fame that bulldozed LA’s hair-metal goons off-stage. Concert footage speaks volumes about Cobain’s driving force: “God, how I love playing live,” he’s quoted.
Cobain stays in sharp focus in candid home-vids of Kurt ’n’ Courtney, a commanding interview presence: frank, forthright, sucking on ciggies. Their druggy self-delusion is palpable but so is their love for daughter Frances Bean: when we see her giggling with Cobain, a warmer, wittier man than his image as rock’s junkie du jour emerges. By the time he’s nodding off, wasted, while holding Frances, you’re in bits because Morgen shows the man behind the muck-raking: the world lost a rock star, Frances a troubled dad.
Winning moments of live euphoria – Reading Festival, MTV Unplugged – provide release before Morgen makes the smart decision to end the film before Cobain’s death. What he leaves you with is a galvanising portrait of a life: not deified, not vilified, but blazingly vivid. And, at 132 minutes, still over too soon.