the director of the new kurt doc on working with the star’s archive and his daughter
Kurt Cobain's suicide created a rock legend, but Brett Morgen's new documentary goes beneath the myth in search of the truth.
It's 21 years since Kurt Cobain killed himself at his home in Seattle on 5 April 1994. The tragedy created a rock legend, sealed Nirvana's legacy and set in motion a plethora of magazine, television, documentary and books dedicated to Cobain and his untimely death. And now, after his records and journals and art has been poured over, it may not feel like there is a lot left to say about Kurt Cobain.
Documentarian Brett Morgen begs to disagree with his new and fully authorised film examining Kurt Cobain's life. For one, Cobain: Montage of Heck, named after a sound collage from the late singer's archives, is the first film to be made entirely with his family's co-operation. His widow, Courtney Love, first approached Morgen about the idea of a film after seeing his Oscar winning film The Kid Stays in the Picture and Cobain's daughter Frances Bean is an executive producer on it.
Despite the level of access - Morgen interviews Cobain's mother and father as well as Love - Morgen found telling the singer's story a challenge. But the results are at once incisive and intimate. Allowed unprecedented access to Cobain's personal and family archives, the director proceeded to document his early years, early success and eventual early end using much of the rock star's own artwork, photography, journals and photographs. He also utilised animation to accompany Cobain's own narration of his childhood, teen rebellion and 90s fame. It's a smart move, as you feel like you get right inside the singer's head in this compelling, moving film of his life.
Courtney Love approached you about the film and offered access to the archive material like Kurt's journals, tapes, and video. Was that the point where you thought you could make a film?
No, I signed up before I went into the big [archival] facility. I had seen photographs of stuff. I can tell you that a lot of documentarians have found themselves in this position, where you sign on to a project. You can't bring in an archivist generally before you have financing and when you have financing you've committed to doing the film and then you come in and go 'ok, I'm going to [have to] do this now, oh shit'.
You mean a moment where you think this isn't feasible?
I had that moment on this film. I'd screened through all of the material which took about four months, I called the line producer and asked how much money we'd spent at that point and I was considering giving the money back to Universal, to HBO out of pocket to get me out of this. Because I didn't think I had what I needed to make the film I wanted to make.
What changed your mind?
It was too much money to pay back! There was that and that was just a knee jerk reaction because I didn't have footage of Kurt and that was really a blessing, not a curse. Archival footage in a traditional sense is like a handcuff, it's hard to be expressive in general when you're dealing with pre existing imagery. Creating material, whether it be animation or other media I like to work in is much more creative and exciting and dangerous.
You had then in your head a way to tell Kurt's story but that wasn't to be?
I went into this film thinking that Kurt was going to tell the story; that he was going to provide context through his interviews. But when I heard all of his interviews I felt it was asking too much of him. I had trouble finding interviews in which they were either intimate or genuine or revealing. It was a format he just wasn't entirely comfortable with. I didn't want him to do all that heavy lifting. That was my main concern. The film I had in my head wasn't going to happen. So I had to shift gears and I settled on using some of the people who were most intimate with Kurt to help contextualise the film.
You get inside Kurt's head by animating his journals and tapes. Tell me about that decision.
The moments where I felt closest to Kurt were the journal entries, the art. [Through] those primary sources that weren't being filtered through the media, I felt like we were accessing a Kurt Cobain I'd never encountered before as vividly.
Were you a fan beforehand?
I was a fan. I was a casual fan. I certainly don't think of it as a film about a fan's perspective on Nirvana. For me, I related to it more from the personal narrative; that's what I was drawn to.
A fan might exercise a certain over protectiveness towards Kurt, perhaps editing out the more uncomfortable parts of the story or what doesn't fit with the mythology of Nirvana. Some of those journal entries are quite adolescent in tone and content.
Well it's interesting that the fan would feel protective over someone they've never met when the widow and the daughter and the mother and the father are all comfortable with it. To me that responsibility goes to next of kin. The other thing with Kurt you gotta remember is that this isn't a guy who wrote his journal and locked it up with a key and hid it under his bed; he had his journals lying all around. Kurt invites people; we see this in the film. He's inviting you to come, read my journals, figure me out. Outside of the journals, the rest of what we're seeing is Kurt's art.
What was Frances' involvement?
It's very simple. I met with her. We agreed to do a film that would be honest. And then she saw the film when it was complete. I believe Kurt created art because he had to but also to show it if there was an opportunity to. Kurt's not here to say therefore we can't hurt Kurt. But Frances and I were talking once and she said 'well, he lost that right, didn't he?'
Cobain: Montage of Heck is in cinemas from Friday 10th April
Text Colin Crummy