“How do you like your blueeyed boy Mister Death.”

Twenty-one years later, the only thing harder than talking about Kurt Cobain is having to listen to other people talk about him. And so it was with major trepidation (and slavering curiosity) that I went into a screening of Montage of Heck, the new biographical documentary directed by Brett Morgen, who has made brilliantly creative films about complicated pop historical figures like Robert Evans and the Chicago 7. Much like AJ Schnack's impressionistic About a Son, Heck is an experiment in illustrating the psyche of a troubled, gifted enigma. But Morgen had total access—not only to Nirvana's music and the family's home movies, but to a heretofore unseen, unheard, unknown trove of experimental/confessional audiotapes Cobain made during his formative years (one of them was the source of the film's not-that-killer title). Morgen's relentlessly inventive visual style puts this material to incredibly vivid use—imagine the visceral ingenuity of early-'90s Oliver Stone, only human. If you loved Nirvana the way only people who loved Nirvana could love Nirvana, the film is legitimately overwhelming.

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Morgen wasn't one of those people. "I liked them," he tells me, "but it wasn't like I was a hardcore fan. What really intrigued me was the art. With Kurt, there's been a lot written about him, obviously, and people have gone on these journeys trying to figure him out. I think if you want to understand an artist, the best way to do it is: Look at the art."

Montage of Heck does a lot of looking at a lot of Cobain's art, mostly in the form of sketches on spiral-notebook pages, but there are also paintings, collages, and, best/hardest of all, those tapes.

Morgen says that the Cobain he encountered via those "primary sources" represented "a different texture, a different cadence, almost like a different person than when he was in front of the media." And it's true that you really do get a sense of watching this kid invent a self out of a world of warring impulses. You watch him grow up, see his face develop the features that became so familiar, all the while anchored by those piercing blue eyes.

"You see this sense of hope and idealism in those early, early drawings, " Morgen says, "when he was like 5 or 6 or 7. And then you see the sort of angst enter around the time he was 11 or 12."

It must have been tempting to impose narratives on that process, as all Cobain chroniclers have. And Morgen does, but not in the classic sense. Though it's clearly got a point of view, the film is more like an inquiry than an argument. It seems like an effort not to define the subject's consciousness, but to enter it. That's no small task, since everyone in the film—and everyone watching it—was bound to have a different idea of what that consciousness encompassed.

So Morgen went back to the primary sources.

For example, he explains, "[Kurt's mother] feels that she never rejected Kurt, but the way he experienced it was as rejection and abandonment. Like any artist, he's dressing up his experiences. But if you strip them down, there's a core emotional resonance that permeates all the work. And that's also why I think he resonates with people all over the world. That experience under it all is so universal."

It couldn't have been easy to juggle the different and conflicting responsibilities—to the families, the fans, the facts—this film represented.

"As far as I'm concerned," says Morgen, "I was accountable to one person, and that's his next of kin. That's Frances. I was given final cut, and that's a heavy responsibility. I felt that the film needed to be honest and unflinching. I didn't want to tear Kurt down. I didn't want to put him on a pedestal. I wanted to look him in the eye and strip away some of the mythology around him, and try to reveal the man. And in the end, I found the man to be so much more engaging and likable and endearing than the myth."

The more Morgen talks, the more unwieldy his feelings about the project seem to become.

"I related to him in ways I never expected," he says. "Some of it had to do with cultural influences. We were born within a year of each other. We had the same cultural influences growing up. My parents were separated when I was 9. I had intense abandonment issues. I struggled with addiction for years. There were several points of the story that felt incredibly—I don't know... In a way, I felt like I had access that people who knew him and were close to him weren't able to reach in life."

Morgen seems to be straining to say something particular about the nature of his connection to Cobain. Whether that something is too personal for him to reveal in an interview or just difficult to put into words (on the phone, with a total stranger, after having flown back from Europe and introduced the premiere of a film he's been working on for eight years) is unclear. He keeps starting and stopping, apparently torn between eagerness and reluctance.

"I don't want this to be misconstrued as some arrogance," he says, "because nothing could be further from the truth. I felt very much like a... umm... God, this is going to sound bad... It's so hard to find these words. Yeah. Yeah, it's tough."

I urge him on, just to finish the thought.

"It's a difficult thing to talk about."

He apologizes and politely ends the interview. And, of course, he's right. It is difficult. Even after all this time, it's still difficult. recommended

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