The chief criticism of the new experimental documentary Kurt Cobain: About a Son, advanced by Manohla Dargis in the New York Times and furthered by clever bloggers everywhere, is that were he alive, Kurt Cobain would hate it. This projection isn't relevant—since he's not alive—nor particularly damning, because, frankly, who cares?
Why should the subject like the documentary? Did those greedy Bible hucksters like Salesman? Did Robert Crumb like Crumb? Could anything matter less? More importantly: The whole point (I hesitate to use the word "tragedy," though it certainly felt like one) about Cobain, consecrated by his mirthless image on posters down the ages and reinforced dramatically in the film, is that he didn't like anything about himself for very long. Cobain's plain voice, edited from tapes of 25 hours of interviews with journalist/biographer Michael Azerrad (with lo-fi sound shrewdly intact), "narrates" the film, a visual poem of the Pacific Northwest that corresponds to its subject's life. Aerial views of the cities where Cobain was a kid (Aberdeen), where he got serious about music (Olympia), and where he wound up (Seattle) set the tone from the outset: About a Son is about place—the place that spawned him and formed the unconscious foundation of his perspective on the world, on morality, on love, on ambition, on sex, on drugs, on rock 'n' roll, and so forth.
At times the visuals are literal. Kurt talks about his insensitive dad bringing him to work—cut to a lumberyard in Aberdeen. He talks about sitting in his dad's office—cut to the desk and the file cabinet. He talks about listening to Queen's News of the World while waiting for his dad to finish work—cue Freddie Mercury singing "It's Late" and a shot of a pile of logs. We get it. At other times, the images are poetic, journalistic, or just random, like a dead bird fanned out on a forest floor. Before long, these literal and abstract correspondences take on their own life as both illustration of and commentary on the narration. The most powerful image, however, is the one that doesn't appear until the last minute of the film: Cobain's face. We spend the whole film not seeing it, but imagining it superimposed over footage of the places he grew up seeing, hating, struggling to escape.
The fact that this footage is shot in the present day instead of archival adds a layer of meaning that might not register so much outside the Northwest—which is fine; if it's about place, let it be about place. Seeing the familiar sights—there's Neumo's, there's the library, there's a lot of new condos—under Cobain's soliloquies is a powerful reminder that he's both a building block of the contemporary psychic (and physical) architecture of the region, particularly Seattle, and also in danger of being forgotten—not as a face or a voice, obviously, but as an exponent of a certain regional character. When Cobain was alive, the desire to escape your small town, make a name for yourself, make some music, and make some money presented a genuine dilemma for people schooled in what Cobain (sounding a bit like Courtney Love) disdainfully calls "the bohemian theory of musical revolution."
By the time the film's interviews took place, Nirvana was a global phenomenon and its frontman had had to reconcile himself to being thought of as a hypocrite by the devotees of this theory, whose spiritual center, not for nothing, was Olympia, the very town whose "taste of culture" made him get real about his music. Though he sounds convinced that the bohemian theory was full of holes, there can be no question that the man with a K Records tattoo on his arm was tortured by it while he lived. Surely, Nirvana was the first band for whom the appropriate way to demonstrate true appreciation was to not wear the T-shirt.The then-prevailing idea that being punk meant being real, and being real meant rejecting fame, money, and attention—that barely exists anymore, except as a marginal objection or a quiet personal choice. Even the notion that there's such a thing as selling out is largely obsolete today, partly because of Nirvana's success. In 1992, that notion was central to music culture in the Northwest (and plenty of other places), even as bands vied to swim in Nirvana's wake. If Cobain is a martyr to anything, it's not rock 'n' roll, it's that brutal ideology, which, like all ideologies, was utopian, and therefore built to fail. The film never says any of this, but the thwarted anger in Cobain's voice, and the scenes of a changed Seattle (including Sub Pop's well-appointed new offices) make it impossible not to consider.
Well, impossible for me not to consider, because that's my Cobain mythos. There are many others: a tragic story of an undiagnosed depressive (though a self-diagnosed schizophrenic); an inspiring bildungsroman about a backwoods hick who made it big but couldn't take the pressure; an infuriating session of "brooding and bellyaching" by (to borrow Cobain's own words) "a product of a spoiled America." It's all of these things, too. The depth of the film's investigation of Cobain's identity resides in its refusal to be definitive. About a Son isn't an argument about Cobain, or even a plea to remember him. It's a eulogy, spoken by the deceased, who, despite receiving as much exposure in the last three years of his life as a human can possibly get, died feeling like he hadn't been heard.
Though cinema has concerned itself with musicians since it learned to speak—the first talkie, in 1927, was called The Jazz Singer—it wasn't until the rock 'n' roll era that the medium started to expand to contain the complexity of the interaction between a person and a persona. The two landmarks of this expansion were, fittingly, about the Beatles and Bob Dylan. A Hard Day's Night and Don't Look Back, a pair of low-budget black-and-white films that established a precedent that prevails to this day: Rock movies that succeed tend to feature the heroism of self-determination. Whether biopics (from 8 Mile to Coal Miner's Daughter), documentaries (from Some Kind of Monster to The Filth and the Fury), or dramas (Hustle & Flow to Tender Mercies), good rock films—and hiphop films, which in film terms means basically the same thing—turn on the observation that making music does not make you better than human; it's just that in many cases, it's the only recourse available to humans who are practically useless at everything else.
And so it is with About a Son, a reminder of the other side of that equation: The self-determination was essential because rock 'n' roll really was Cobain's only choice. Most of what he talks about in the film is boilerplate rock star, with all the narcissism and paranoia that go along with the job of constructing your own narrative. Typical Northwest forced humility trades off with self-consciously enigmatic non sequiturs. But hearing him bemoan his contempt for society, journalists, and his small-town roots, then extol his love for his wife, his daughter, and heroin leaves you with the impression that had he not become what he became, it's reasonable to believe that his fate would've been no different. Cobain spent a short life trying to create a persona to deliver him from the torpor of his rural ordinariness, then battling with the perceptions of that persona. But the warring desires that defined him and his creation—to be a rock star and to demystify the rock-star myth, to be aesthetically true to the punk rock that changed his life and to reach a huge audience, to deliver "anti-drug tirades" while rhapsodizing about a $400-a-day heroin habit, etc.—all point to the more fundamental desire to not be whatever he was. And no one can do that.
The distance of 13 years since the death of About a Son's subject was essential—Cobain's audience wasn't ready until now, but it's possible that the medium wasn't quite ready either. The formal conventions of rock cinema have always tended to mirror the tenor of rock itself: The '50s were all good times and cheeseburgers, exploitation pictures built to cash in on a craze; the '60s saw Beatlesesque romps give way to psychedelic experimentalism; the '70s begat the born dead concert film; with the '80s came the music video; and the '90s recycled all these styles. Now that the rock 'n' roll era is well and truly dead, the boutique of rock lives on in a proliferation of documentaries—some more or less homemade—enabled by advances in cheap digital video technology and the growth of the consumer DVD market (inversely proportionate, it seems, to the death of the CD market). About a Son isn't technically revolutionary (though it is beautifully made); its biggest stylistic debt is owed to Godfrey Reggio's hypnotic Koyaanisqatsi. But for a mainstream motion picture, even an indie, to dedicate itself to examining not just an icon, but iconography itself, by treating the biggest rock star of the last 20 years to a Koyaanisqatsi-esque approach is a major development.
It only works because you don't see Cobain's face. This daring choice allows director AJ Schnack to construct a physical reality that's defined by both Cobain's absence and the suggestion of his presence. It forces you to remember your own version of the man from the videos and the magazines. It also allows you to forget that image, and affect your own personal deconstruction and reconstruction. Because you don't see him, because he never stops talking, and because the film provides relentless visual context, it pulls off the fascinating trick of being both subjective and objective—not alternately, but simultaneously. And while you're interrogating your assumptions, Schnack is asking questions, too.
If the questions were along the lines of "How vulnerable was he?" this would've been the shortest documentary of all time. The interesting question, the one About a Son asks, is how could such obvious vulnerability march in time with such calculation? Cobain's contradictions—guilelessness and craftiness, insecurity and ambition, self-love and self-hatred, pride and shame, punk and corporate—have fueled marathon hours of argument between devotees and haters alike. About a Son wisely makes no attempt to reconcile these irreconcilable conflicts of character. It simply understands that such things are human and lets Cobain do all the talking.
And while it's probably true that he wouldn't have liked the film—too indulgent, too whiny, too many shots of Aberdeen—one can at least imagine that Cobain would've appreciated the opportunity to speak for himself, without the constant interpretation that he so despairingly resisted when he was alive. This is probably the ultimate reason that About a Son is the only way to do a film about Kurt Cobain, who was, for all important reasons, the last rock star: There's no thesis, no exegesis, no attempts to put him in a frame he didn't choose. It's just: Here he is, his words, his version—unfiltered, unmitigated, unmagnified even by his own blinding beauty. And for those of us who really did hang on his every word when he was alive, getting frustrated along with him at the way no one seemed to like him for the right reasons, the film's mandate to humanize a musician who has been handed down to history as a glowering 2-D icon is a welcome innovation.
But that still doesn't make it easy to watch, even all these years later.