Brett Morgen’s documentary Montage of Heck was supposed to be the definitive documentary about the late Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain. As a long-time fan of the group, I found the film insightful at times but ultimately unsatisfying. By limiting its scope to a mainly extant set of home recordings left behind by Cobain after his death in 1994, the film offers a rather myopic and highly cultivated caricature of its subject. Though the film deserves credit for avoiding the lazy hagiography that usually marks these kinds of projects, it ultimately forces a vision of Cobain upon the viewer that still seems incomplete. The film tries very hard to make it seem like a revelation that Cobain had a sense of humor, which is puzzling considering the fact that he regularly exuded humor in his music, lyrics, live performances, videos, and interviews, even if it was often cloaked in vitriol. But the film also reinforces the unfortunately romanticized notions of him as a sad junkie clown.
In some ways, the deeply flawed Nick Broomfield documentary Kurt & Courtney (1998) has an innocent charm at times that really broadens one’s understanding of Cobain, particularly in his scentless apprenticeship years. Because it was made only a few years after his death, the perspectives are still fresh. Interviews with Cobain’s aunt Mari Earle and Cobain’s ex-girlfriend Tracy Marander comport themselves with a prideful enthusiasm about Kurt during his prelapsarian years. Though the film is ultimately a Courtney Love hit-piece posing as a cheap Michael Moore knockoff, these brief moments early in Broomfield’s film nail the tone that Morgen fails to capture in his two-hour documentary. To a certain extent, this tone is best captured in the documentary’s supplementary soundtrack: Montage of Heck: The Home Recordings.
I’m not going to mince words. If the only Nirvana album you have is Nevermind, PLEASE DON’T GET MONTAGE OF HECK. Without an intense fondness for Nirvana ranging from “Smells Like Teen Spirit” all the way to “The Last Improv,” a fun, anarchic, six-minute piece of free association skronk recorded during the In Utero sessions and buried deep in the With the Lights Out box set, the material on Montage of Heck is going to sound awful. The poor sound quality of these recordings is paired with an onslaught of bum notes and more unintelligible-than-usual Cobain vocals. As other critics have already pointed out, this collection scrapes the absolute bottom of the Cobain barrel. If you buy this thinking, “Cool, a Kurt Cobain solo album,” you will be so disappointed you will never ever consider listening to any more Nirvana, which would be a shame (for my money, In Utero and MTV Unplugged in New York are even better than Nevermind).
All that being said, the ravenous Nirvana fan, like myself, will find some of these recordings rewarding. Because Morgen was clearly looking for any basically-formed recordings that had yet to be represented on any previous officially released Nirvana product, the pickings are pretty slim. Most of the stand-out cuts offer brief glimpses into Cobain’s songwriting style and his knack for arranging. The first notable performance on Montage of Heck is “What More Can I Say.” Because Cobain didn’t jot down dates for his recordings, it is unclear when this particular song was laid down. One can assume that he had just heard and digested the Pixies’ Surfer Rosa (1988), an album he cherished. In “What More Can I Say,” one gets the impression that this is one of his early experiments with the flaccid/erect arrangement which became the cornerstone of Nirvana sound on Nevermind. At 1:02 of the recording, Cobain hits the overdrive switch, unintelligibly crooning in a goofy falsetto over the crunchy buzz emanating from his amplifier, which continues for nearly a minute. It is not an especially good song, but it feels important.
The next great snippet here is “Burn the Rain,” a dark acoustic figure that never crosses the one-minute marker, interrupted by a ringing phone. Sadly it never really gets the chance to develop. One imagines in an alternate universe the song making its way into Nirvana’s November 18th, 1993 Unplugged set. “Retreat” is a mostly instrumental acoustic guitar number in a similar vein which shows Cobain picking arpeggios around a single chord until it settles into a hypnotic groove. “Letters to Frances” is another solemn acoustic ditty. You get the picture. As with “Burn the Rain,” the listener is left to imagine how these figures would have developed if Cobain lived long enough to pursue them. The most probable reality is that these performances were forgotten the moment they were committed to tape.
The more playful side of Cobain emerges on throwaway excursions such as the aptly titled “Reverb Experiment.” The influence of his best friend Dylan Carlson, later known to listeners as the frontman for the drone rock group Earth, looms large on this three-minute track. Another fun throwaway is “Scream,” a half-minute tape loop consisting of layers of Cobain’s screaming voice. This is a fun piece of self-awareness. Cobain must have been aware that he possessed one of the best vocal screams in the history of rock music and, as such, goes full ape with it here. “Bright Smile” appears to be a twelve-string guitar experiment that would have been at home on the first Red Crayola album.
Unfortunately, most of Morgen’s attempts to show the humorous side of Cobain fall flat, especially “Beans,” which was already the worst of the 61 tracks found on the Nirvana rarities box-set With the Lights Out. “Rehash” ends up “rehashing” one of Cobain’s most repeated self-criticisms of his songwriting style: his reliance upon the “Verse Chorus Verse” formula (note his song by the same title, which was an outtake from the Nevermind sessions). The various “Montage of Kurt” recordings found here also fail to resonate. A weird medley consisting of two generic and previously unknown Cobain contributions dovetails into an early rendition of “Something in the Way,” leaving one to wonder just how much pot Kurt had smoked that afternoon.
Montage of Heck will probably be remembered for three tracks in particular: “She Only Lies,” Cobain’s cover of The Beatles’ early love song “And I Love Her,” and the medley of renditions of “Do Re Mi.” “She Only Lies” is notable for being the lone officially released document of Cobain playing bass. This bass-only recording is supplemented by a Cobain lyric that appeals to the conspiracy crowd who thinks Courtney Love had him murdered, in large part because of its concluding lines. Its spare, labyrinthine bass figure suggests even greater complexity to Cobain’s breadth as a songwriter. His arrangement of The Beatles’ “And I Love Her” is probably the best thing on Montage of Heck. It hints at his arrangement for “Pennyroyal Tea.” It also takes the relatively plaintive Beatles original and turns it into a sorrowful, brooding number. Lastly, Morgen concludes the set with a ten-minute set of performances of “Do Re Mi,” which was easily the highlight of With the Lights Out. Here Cobain experiments with the arrangement, though the vocal melody (with a varying set of unintelligible lyrics) largely set in place. Clearly Cobain knew this song had some teeth. By presenting it in this form, Morgen gives the listener a sense of Cobain’s songwriting process while working through a single song. It doesn’t rival the performance from With the Lights Out, but it’s a testimony to the quality of this song in process that it never gets dull during its ten-minute playing time.
The most controversial fragment on here is, undoubtedly, “Aberdeen,” a spoken word performance that is the centerpiece of the early section of Morgen’s film. In it, Cobain claims to have almost had sex with a “fat girl” that was “quiet and slow.” After being repulsed by her body odor, he chickens out. After rumors spread at his high school about the episode, he gets called “the retard fucker.” He then describes an attempted suicide (he died by suicide in 1994) on some railroad tracks. It’s a compelling performance, as Cobain describes his adolescent depression, having nervous breakdowns, his experiments with marijuana and alcohol, and the “mental abuse” inflicted upon him by his mother.
However, as Buzz Osbourne of the Melvins points out in a piece for The Talkhouse, “In that small-town shit-hole, exciting news of that nature would have been common knowledge before the sun set. It never happened. And the trying-to-kill-himself-on-the-train-tracks story is bullshit as well. It never happened either.” Later in the piece, he adds, “At least they spared us the horrendously overblown tale of him living under a bridge in Aberdeen. Another bullshit story.” His main point in that piece is that Morgen, who never knew Cobain, seems susceptible to Cobain’s self-mythology, one that violates the supposed truth-claims of the documentary format. Treating a recording, a performance like this as fact does what Osbourne claims: “it certainly reinforces their already twisted view of the man.” Though Osbourne is famous for his trolling of other musicians, his thoughts on Morgen’s entire Montage of Heck project get at the heart of why it, and especially this project, can leave a dirty taste in one’s mouth.
Because I can point out the joys of the folky January 1, 1991 demo of “All Apologies” found on the 20th Anniversary Deluxe Edition of In Utero, because I love their sloppy rendition of Led Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker” from their first gig in 1987 when Aaron Burckhard was their drummer, because I sincerely think the Nevermind hidden track “Endless, Nameless” is one of Nirvana’s best songs, Montage of Heck is a product perfectly suited to a niche consumer like myself. Even with all those qualifiers, this review would be worthless if it failed to acknowledge the fact that this is a bad “album” (or collection, or however you want to categorize it). Familiar songs are presented with uninformative, subpar demo versions. The inclusion of Cobain’s montages and tape experiments, which just about every kid who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s did at some point, will not impress anybody. Furthermore, the release of these recordings crosses ethical boundaries and can be perceived as a violation of privacy, or, as Cobain once sang, an “invasion of our piracy.” But as every second of Cobain’s all-too-brief life gets milked, it shouldn’t be surprising. While I find some value in the recordings that make up Montage of Heck, it is clearly not for everybody. Let’s just hope that in ten years, this set isn’t followed up with Her Milk is My Shit: The Farts of Kurt Cobain. That would be sad day indeed.
Brian Flota is a Librarian who lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He co-edited The Politics of Post-9/11 Music with Joseph P. Fisher in 2011 (Ashgate). He also contributes reviews to Library Journal and The Hairsplitter. When he was a three-year-old, his favorite song was “Copacabana (At the Copa)” by Barry Manilow.