I DVR’d Montage of Heck and watched it a day after it premiered on HBO. I waited partly out of dread. Everything I’ve read about the Kurt Cobain documentary cast it as the most through and fascinating depiction of him ever—largely due to unprecedented access to home movies, journals, and a clutch of his Dr Demento-style tape recordings.
But even as a fan, I’ve had a hard time with the posthumous deification of Cobain. Not because he wasn’t treated like a god when he was alive—he was—nor because he didn’t deserve it. As someone who was a relatively disenfranchised, rural teen weirdo right when Nirvana started to blow up and calcify a generational shift, I know very well how much the overall culture shifted because of his presence. But as more time passes since his death, the lionization of his persona becomes increasingly rote—so much like the pedestal all the old mostly-white, always male rock gods, another man to elevate into the canon and transform into a personification of saintliness. Cobain, as followers of his career (and watchers of Montage of Heck) can surmise, probably would have hated that, even despite his fame-thirst. He was invested in women’s equality at a young age, even writing in a journal at 17 to be mindful not to dance in a way that made women uncomfortable.
But, shit, I watched Montage of Heck. I related to Nirvana’s music when it came out, all post-Reagan frustration and middle-class-value-smashing. And it truly was a beautiful documentary, depicting him more fully as a human person with a tumultuous origin and frenetic genius than we’ve ever received, even in thorough tomes like Charles Cross’s Heavier Than Heaven. There are delicate shots of Cobain playing as a flaxenhaired toddler, soundtracked by a xylophone interpretation of “All Apologies”—and then there are gruesome shots of adult Cobain holding Frances Bean in his lap for her first haircut as he nods out, face scabbed from the dope. It is a tragedy that does not pull punches, and also does a good job of retelling, through found footage, why he resonated so deeply at the time, why Nirvana became the number one band in the world so quickly. He gave a voice to anomie.
I recommend the documentary. But I was especially concerned with how it would treat Courtney Love, who is as vilified as Cobain is lifted up. She cooperated fully with director Brett Morgen, offering him access to the footage, and doesn’t hold back or try to censor what went on then. She admits to shooting up while pregnant, she admits to being high with Cobain often. She is frank and honest in both the archival footage (at one point, naked, she tells Cobain that she doesn’t want him to tour with other women) and in the present interviews, which offer a stark contrast: 2015 Love looks like an entirely different person.
As others have written at length, the film really debunks the myth that Love was a manipulative harpy (or whatever people think she was), and shows very intimately that Cobain loved her deeply. As Tyler Coates writes at Decider, “one gets the sense that Cobain blamed himself for the onslaught of hatred directed at his wife,” at one point asking a stadium-full of fans to yell “We love you, Courtney,” after she does a dramatic reading of the hatemail sent to Sassy magazine post “Ain’t Love Grand” cover.
But unlike Coates and Leslie Horn, I don’t know if this documentary will quell the hatred for Love; I think it actually might fuel it, based on two things. The first is the editing, which was no doubt innocent but makes a statement nonetheless. And then there’s the persistent misogyny that comes with devoted fans who believe a single woman is responsible for sullying the legacy of their precious man-god (just look at Beatles fans’ feelings toward Yoko Ono). It’s a weird confluence of ownership, sexism, loner-hero-worship and, I guess, a disbelief that their idol could express such a human emotion as love, to the point where some fans seem to fetishize monasticism. (Everybody knows saints don’t bone!)
To be clear, I’m not a Courtney Love apologist; I adore a great amount of her music and find her deeply fascinating, but I also understand her to be periodically anti-woman enough in her history that it is troubling. None of us are perfect. But—and this is just a hunch—I’m pretty sure she did not arrange for her husband to be murdered.
So here’s the part that concerns me: in Montage of Heck, the final time we see Love is when she is talking about how she never cheated on Cobain, but thought about it, one time. She did not act on it, but Kurt, she surmises, must have figured it out. Love doesn’t explain why she thinks that; one presumes it was their soul connection, or body language, or maybe she inferred it. The next day, Cobain overdosed in Rome. One month later, he succeeded in killing himself in Seattle. Then, the movie ends.
In implying that her actions helped lead Cobain to the OD, Love opens a heartbreaking window into her thought process these years: she’s clearly been through all the stages of grief up to acceptance, and more so, she seems to have some regrets. Who wouldn’t? She puts some of the onus on herself, assures us she never cheated, but also acknowledges the broken nature of a man who might attempt suicide at all, much less because of that if it played a part—the kind of person whose abandonment fear is so acute they’d rather leave first than be left.
But it also gives us insight into the peril of being a public figure who is also open about their most fraught experiences. Director Morgen has said that putting together this film was something of a healing process for the family; no doubt that healing process included Love being as frank and emotionally bald as she’s ever been about her experiences with Cobain. As journalists and fans, this is the kind of intimacy so many of us seek from our artists and pop icons—less selfies-n-sex appeal, more insight into the person behind the fame.
Our icons make us feel less alone in the world by helping us better to understand it; if we can better understand them, maybe everything else will be slightly easier to navigate. But the way some Nirvana fans have reacted to Courtney Love over the past 20 years justifies the silence and plasticine privacy so many newer, less tough stars project.
Montage of Heck is now showing on HBO.
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