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Montage of Heck: About a Dad

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Cobain: Montage of Heck A Film by Brett Morgen presents the Nirvana frontman as only intimate family members and friends have seen before...

What he would look like today as a 48-year-old man? What other classic songs he might have written?

There are so many things we’ll never know about Kurt Cobain. What he would look like today as a 48-year-old man. What other classic songs he might have written. Whether he and Courtney Love would still be together — or he and Nirvana, for that matter.

And what kind of father would he be to Frances Bean Cobain, the daughter who was only 19 months old when the self-proclaimed “miserable, self-destructive” rock singer took his own life at the height of his fame in 1994? No one can answer these questions. Not his best friends, his biggest fans, or the most skillful journalist. (Certainly not the armchair conspiracy theorists who believe he was murdered.)

But the HBO documentary Cobain: Montage of Heck A Film by Brett Morgen, the latest film to tackle the story of Kurt Cobain’s troubling life, gets perhaps the closest to that last one, by showing him as you’ve never seen him before — as a dad.

Montage of Heck is the first fully authorized Cobain documentary project. Oscar-nominated filmmaker Brett Morgen was given unprecedented access to loads of never-before-seen journals, artwork, photography, and songbooks. He also draws on precious home movies dating back to Cobain’s childhood as a hyperactively curious, heartbreakingly beautiful, blond boy.

Yes, finally, there’s a movie about Kurt Cobain that has his great songs in it!

You can thank Love for this. The singer is a fan of Morgen’s film The Kid Stays in the Picture and approached him about making this documentary. That was eight years ago. And that’s how long it took Morgen to immerse himself in those most private archives, to shape the film, to edit it — and to get clearances from all parties to use the music and other materials. Yes, finally, there’s a movie about Kurt Cobain that has his great songs in it!

Daughter Frances Bean was on board as co-executive producer. Neither she nor Love demanded any creative control over what Morgen would include. He didn’t hold back.

There is a lot of darkness in Cobain’s story. This was a guy, after all, whose idea of a joke was to write a song called “I Hate Myself and Want to Die.” And so it’s in the film.

We see how his troubles started at age nine, when his parents divorced. Interviews with mother Wendy, father Don, stepmother Jenny, and sister Kim illuminate Cobain’s early teens as a constant shuffle between homes. He was a sensitive rebel desperately seeking a traditional family life.

Music would play a huge part of his salvation. But that story has been told. We don’t need another exploration of the impact of Nirvana, and Montage zeros in on the other things that mattered most to Cobain: his art, his wife, and his daughter.

Much of the film is told in Cobain’s words. Morgen based his narrative in part on dozens of audiotapes he found in the storage vaults, which he then had animated. Cobain filled up tapes like diaries, telling stories and messing around with sound effects and other remix and mash-up techniques. (The title Montage of Heck actually came from one of those cassettes.)

Some of these stories are quite intimate — notably a suicide attempt and the shame he carried from an early sexual experience that he felt had exploited a young girl. But the tapes also reveal Cobain’s playful, prankish side, which later comes out so often when Nirvana breaks big and he gets to mess with reporters on a regular basis.

For music fans, the film features footage of some of the band’s greatest moments on stage, from tiny rooms to Glastonbury. More important, the music absolutely kills. It’s visceral and punk and at times full of rage, the sequences mixed so loud you’ll feel like you’re at a live concert.

...In the unflinching footage is a tenderness and joy, a happy Cobain as a young man who had finally found a family.

But the scenes that hit hardest are the private home movies of his life with Love, particularly after the birth of their daughter. It’s been well-documented that the pair were addicted to hard drugs at this time, and to watch two strung-out rock stars at home with their baby is unsettling stuff. Yet in the unflinching footage is a tenderness and joy, a happy Cobain as a young man who had finally found a family.

It’s clear that Morgen cared about showing viewers Love the way Cobain saw her. He goes out of his way to make the much-maligned singer seem lovable, even when she’s completely messed up. Whether or not you like the woman (or trust her version of events), these moments will stick with you — as will Frances Bean, the innocent baby girl at the centre of all this chaos.

At the film’s Sundance premiere, Frances spoke to the audience. “I didn’t know Kurt, but I feel very strongly that he would be exceptionally proud of this film,” she said. “It touches on some dark subjects, but at the end of the day … what this movie will provide, hopefully, is a real understanding of who he was.”

Liisa Ladouceur is a Toronto-based author and journalist.