I just got finished watching the Brett Morgen documentary, Montage of Heck, on Cobain. I feel compelled to write about it for so many reasons. One of them makes me a superficial, fame-whore sellout, a reason that Cobain himself would despise. My last post on him, written 3 years ago, is pinged on a near weekly basis. The second is a more pure one: I relate very heavily with Cobain’s experience on Earth, his lyrics, his emotions, his stomach trouble, his sensitivity to the other. Thirdly, he died during a very seminal year for me, a year after a major surgery, and during a move to a new town. I am sensitive. On the heels of a rough surgical recovery in Spring 1993, this additional transition was a bit much.
Cobain had debilitating, undiagnosed, stomach problems, emotional problems, trauma, depression, anxiety, angst, a great and active mind, which Morgen effectively exhibited through his chosen medium, the documentary. I, too, have a debilitating, undiagnosable stomach ailment, emotional problems, experienced trauma, feel the pangs of depression and anxiety daily.
I get how he felt.
I get how he feels.
Cobain had an Outlet for His Distress
Cobain, though, got to live his art. It gave him an outlet for some time. The lyrics he wrote were catharsis. He was punk-rock angry. In the documentary, the audience sees Cobain whiling away days on the couch, smoking cigarettes, playing guitar, writing in his numerous notebooks. It appeared as if he was a burnout to the many around him that watched him during this time, but this could not be further from the truth. He was living and writing many of the songs that would later appear on Nirvana’s first album, Nevermind.
I, on the other hand, must squeeze it in after a long day’s work, sometimes in the wee hours of morning.
Morgen and Cobain Use Medium as the Messenger
Just like with Crossfire Hurricane, Morgen allows large swatches of archival film and audio to play uncomfortably longer than necessary. I felt the documentary in such a profound way because Morgen animated the figures and words contained in Cobain’s journals. Morgen also created comic book-like animation to pair with an audio recording of Cobain talking about his first attempted suicide in his teen years. This was new information delivered in a nearly perfect manner. Montage was Heck may be Morgen’s greatest achievements.
Why did Morgen make the choices he did in crafting the documentary? Cobain has been mythologized. He has been written, and written, and written about ad nauseum. The audience needs to feel and experience him in a refreshing way. Morgen got it spot on. The medium is the message, which is how Cobain, and countless other artists like him, would have wanted it. I argue this point in the blog post from three years ago. Cobain wanted to be known for what he created. He did not want the attention that comes with fame. He only wanted his angst and pain to be validated, to be heard. A pure artist, through and through.
Thankfully, Morgen did not go into the gruesome details and numerous controversies over Cobain’s death. He simply ends the documentary with a statement saying that Cobain took his life on April 5, 1994. No throngs of people sitting in parks, nor MTV News clips announcing the news were shown. The screen just faded to black and the credits rolled.
I could not have been happier with the way this documentary was packaged and information put together. New details about Cobain’s life presented in a way that did not humiliate or sensationalize, like so many other documentarians have done with his life and death. This was a celebration of Nirvana and Cobain’s affect on the world. His mother said it best when she heard what would become Nevermind for the first time, “this is going to change everything…because you are not ready for this.”
If you are interested in learning more about what was revealed in the documentary, watch it on HBO, or HBO Go, or read the Rolling Stone article that summarizes nine revelations from the film.