'Montage of Heck' director Brett Morgen revises Kurt Cobain myth
"Thanks for giving me a couple hours with my father that I thought I was never going to have."
What better words to have whispered into the ears of a filmmaker than the ones director Brett Morgen received from Frances Bean Cobain, the 22-year-old daughter of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, after she watched Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, his new documentary on her late father, who took his own life in April, 1994.
"That made everything worthwhile," Morgen says down the line from his Los Angeles office. "Every hour spent on this film, all the years spent trying to get to that point. Everything got washed away in that one breath."
The cinematic journey through the artistic and mercurial mind of one of rock’s most troubled souls began back in 2007, after Morgen received a phone call from Courtney Love, who was a huge fan of his body of work, which includes the 2012 Rolling Stones doc Crossfire Hurricane, and Love’s personal favourite, The Kid Stays in the Picture, the 2002 biopic of Hollywood producer Robert Evans.
She wanted Morgen to tell the story of Cobain through the singer’s own art work – including drawings, writings, photography and video that had been locked away in a storage facility for years.
Within this treasure trove of material was Love’s personal videos taken during their now-infamous relationship, and in addition, he had access to Super 8 footage of the rocker as a child, taken by Cobain’s mom Wendy, as well as unprecedented interviews with her and most of the Cobain family, including his dad Donald, and sister Kimberly.
“All of the previous attempts to tell Kurt's story in film, and even with the many books written about him, they were all missing the one thing that is Kurt – it's his art,” Morgen says. “And none of them had access to the primary source material that I had.”
What Morgen now sought was full creative control, which he said was a must if the doc was ever going to see the light of day.
“As we got into it, it became clear that Courtney could not have any creative involvement whatsoever in the film,” Morgen says emphatically. “I needed to be the author of the film. There was no way I was going to be able to make the movie if I didn't have the final cut.”
The turning point, he states, was a conversation he had with Frances Bean, an executive producer of Montage, in early 2013. “I don't want another retelling of the myth of Kurt that presents him as some sort of saint,” she told him. “So whatever you do, keep it honest, keep it real.”
He did just that. Morgen mixed real footage with animation, which essentially brings Cobain’s writings and audio recordings to life onscreen. A few scenes, including one rather disturbing one that shows Kurt extremely high on heroin while holding Frances Bean, drew the ire of Wendy and Kimberly, who insisted that the clip should have been axed from film.
He was emphatic about keeping it in, with Frances Bean backing him up right until the completion, insisting that he “should not touch a frame.”
So what was Love’s take on that section of the film? (Morgen insists she hadn’t seen the film until two days before it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.)
“Courtney has never made a comment to me about any one clip,” Morgen states. “Frances later told me that when they were watching the movie, Courtney leaned over to her during that particular scene and said, 'I'm sorry. I'm really, really sorry.'”
Ironically, Morgen admits that he was never a huge fan of Nirvana leading up to the making of Montage, but once he immersed himself in the project, he says “every day was a revelation.”
“I would have made this same film if it was about a guy named James Smith who lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts,” states Morgen. “What intrigued me about this film was the opportunity to do the story from the inside out, rather than the outside in.”
So what would Kurt Cobain think of his documentary?
“I wanted to make a film that Kurt would have liked to have seen,” he says. “I don’t know if he would have wanted to watch it in his own life… it might have raised too many issues for him. But stylistically, I wanted to make a film where if he was 15 years old in Aberdeen, Washington, he would have loved it from an aesthetic standpoint.”
Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck can be seen at Cineplex theatres across Canada on May 4 as part of its Front Row Centre Series, MUSIC AT THE MOVIES. It will screen again on May 7. Check your local listings for show times.