There are few mysteries more grim than that of a suicide, particularly of such a beloved and iconic celebrity. That death can blur the line between fandom and the entitled urge to know more about their private lives — as was and still is the case with Kurt Cobain, guitarist and frontman of prolific ‘90s grunge outfit Nirvana. Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck gives us unprecedented access to the mind and soul of someone who never took interviews seriously and resented his overnight rise to fame.

Cobain himself may have disliked such a documentary for exposing a side of himself he deliberately kept private. He was an enigma to his fans and sometimes his friends and family, and as the documentary reveals, Cobain was hyper-sensitive and especially vulnerable to his exposure and the idea of being humiliated. Without Cobain to explain why he took his life and what happened on that day in 1994, all we have to rely on is speculation, aided by the mementos of an emotionally charged and often distraught life. That’s the duplicitous nature of suicide: the one person who can explain it isn’t here to do so.

Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck is as the title suggests (and is taken from one of his various audio compilations) — an audio-visual collage that’s often jarring but ultimately poignant, using Cobain’s own drawings, recordings and home video footage, all of which was never previously released. We see him as the hyperactive child who exhausted his parents to the point of hopelessness. We see him as the moody, empathetic teen boy who tells us the story of how he attempted to lose his virginity to a special needs girl. We see him as the motivated adult, driven by his art and determined to make the best music he possibly could, unaware of the effect fame would have on him. And of course we see him as the renowned frontman of Nirvana, rising to stardom almost as soon as his band found a label to call home. His mother warned him that his music would change everything, that he wasn’t ready for the onslaught of attention to come. His mother was right.

Cobain’s drawings and journal entries are effectively animated to highlight his stream of consciousness approach to scribbling phrases and paragraphs about the government, women, depression and self-resentment. But above all, they show someone who was impossibly sensitive and kind, even when he wasn’t being kind to himself. Perhaps more deeply affecting than any pages from his notebook or the footage from his childhood are home videos of Cobain with his wife, Hole frontwoman Courtney Love. Through these videos we see a side of Kurt Cobain we’ve never seen before — gone is the man who refuses to look into a camera for an interview and gives limp, disinterested answers to journalists in an act of defiance. Here we see a man who loved his wife and his infant daughter, who jokes and goofs off with Love in the bathroom and around their apartment. He is more childlike here than in his mother’s home videos, playing with Love and their daughter, Frances Bean.

From the moment Love married Cobain, she was despised and compared to Yoko Ono, accused of tainting the image of this imperfectly perfect rock icon. Her ability to make him happy and his affection for here were suspect to fans, who seemingly wanted their precious rock star to remain unhappy and isolated — negativity breeds better art, after all. Cobain himself knew that, and was often torn on the subject of the persistent stomach aches that had been plaguing him for most of his life. As with most creatives, he both resented and embraced his affliction, worried that if he were to find relief, he might lose the thing that made him so special.

The image of Love is a sad one, the portrait of a hated woman who was blamed for her husband’s happiness, for his suffering and addiction, and eventually for his suicide. A poorly executed 1998 documentary titled Kurt and Courtney explored the ridiculous idea that Love staged Cobain’s suicide, but for fans who still labor under that delusion, Love’s home videos absolve her from any wrongdoing once and for all. What’s most depressing about her involvement in Montage of Heck is the idea that she needs to absolve herself at all.

For decades now, fans have tried to understand Cobain through his lyrics and the video footage often recycled for posthumous TV specials, sifting and re-sifting through the only remains available to claim. When a celebrity dies, they bequeath their life’s work to their fans, and Cobain’s fans have struggled for years to make sense of a person they could never really know — a man who didn’t want the world to know him, who felt the need to keep some things to himself for fear of humiliation. Cobain put himself out there through lyrics that were easily identifiable to kindred spirits, from the disaffected and depressed youth to the morose adults they became. But it was never enough — they wanted more, they felt entitled to know what they shouldn’t instead of embracing what he gave them as a privilege.

This only escalated after his death. For as illuminating and intimate as Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck is, it still might not be enough for some.

Kurt Cobain documentary review

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