“I know how to use my illusion,” Kurt Cobain said, to Courtney Love, wondering why people depicted him as the good one, her the bad one.
Such is the basis for wading through the mythos surrounding Cobain and arriving at something resembling a suffering, but at times, brilliant, man.
The illusion was the man as voice for a lost generation. The illusion was that money, worldwide fame and a wife and child were enough to satiate the hunger of depression and pain.
It wasn’t, as we know, since Cobain killed himself in 1994. But this documentary by Brett Morgen is like a raw rave through the remnants of Kurt Cobain’s reality at that time. Heroin, worldwide adulation, critics, baby Frances, Courtney and music as an outlet.
Not being as familiar with the Cobain story as others, I found Morgen’s style of narrating it to be helpful and technically apropos. It was quite literally a montage swiveling between archival footage given to him by the family or news reels or present interviews with those that knew him (unfortunately, they were too late in nabbing Dave Grohl for an interview) and then some impressive animation of different scenarios in Cobain’s life.
The main thread from which all else sprouts forth is that Cobain was utterly allergic to humiliation. He disdained it with a fierce attitude. Sometimes it would cause him to drown such depressive repelling of humiliation with heroin binges (and when he was younger, marijuana) or to take six months off of a worldwide tour for Nevermind. As such, it didn’t help that his family seemingly rejected him after his parents divorced. He was constantly shifting from house to house, guardian to guardian, finding nowhere to fit in.
It’s easy to see how this reject, compounded with his grunge music, would create this image of Cobain as the voice of a lost generation. A mantle he never wanted to claim, really.
Watching some of the stadium footage, where thousands of people are swaying and bobbing at the every utterance of Cobain, it’s any wonder that many of these rockers dive into drugs. That kind of power and resulting adrenaline is not normal. Only a handful of people know what it’s like to own and rock a stage, to have people eating out of the palm of your hand. And when they’re not eating out of it? The pull for that high has to be channeled somewhere else. Some dive into booze and women and in Cobain’s case, it was heroin.
Adding to the problem, Cobain thought the source of his creativity was his stomach pain. He wanted to be healthy, but he feared what that would do to his creativity. In many of the later scenes, he looks frail and clearly high. It’s somewhat of a disarming juxtaposition to see this legitimate, worldwide superstar not being able to form a coherent sentence while he’s holding his baby daughter up for a haircut, living in somewhat of a messy house.
He’s a god disrobed. And that’s what I think is the achievement of Morgen’s piece here. Using the various ways to examine Cobain’s life that he did, he achieved a narrative that doesn’t sanctify him, nor does it downplay him; it just shows Cobain as Cobain was, warts and all.
The documentary ends on somewhat of a somber note with Cobain’s MTV Unplugged performance. It seems counter-intuitive compared to his earlier stage performances. To have him sitting down on a computer chair in a sweater, in this low-key, intimate environment and just perform. It’s fucking perfect, quite frankly. He also looked healthier at least.
Morgen stays on throughout the last song, “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” as Cobain takes his time moving through the words, pausing at the end to let out a breath and open his eyes to the crowd, then finish. It’s powerful.
And then he’s gone. At seemingly the apex of his powers. All we’re left with is his trail of music and a montage of heck.