Montage of Heck is an intimate view of a person we all like to believe we kind of knew. The more it shows us of Kurt Cobain—son, loner, artist, band leader, husband, father, icon—and it shows us a lot, the more the film proves us both right and wrong.
Though grounded by interviews (his parents, sister Kim, ex-girlfriend Tracy, bandmate Krist Novoselic, and widow Courtney Love all help piece him together), its dominant building block is a highly stylized collage that brings the pages of Cobain's fucked-up, witty journal to noisy, spazzy life. Drawings and words wriggle and explode on the page as Nirvana songs play. More conventional animations illustrate never-before-heard spoken-word entries that detail Cobain's extremely gnarly attempt at losing his virginity (TRIGGER WARNING), the isolation he felt, and his generally unmoored sense of self.
Three qualms: (1) The visual ADHD can get exhausting, in terms of both pace and intensity. (2) I'm never that keen on animated reenactment footage. (3) Oh my god, the cringeathon that is a choral rendition of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" playing over slo-mo outtakes of the video shoot. However, Montage is—or at least feels—honest. It frames Cobain as a fairly normal, sensitive, self-conscious guy with a chronic stomachache who did, in fact, want to play good music and succeed on some level.
Fame comes late in Montage, which is an advantage, since we know it's coming. But no sooner has it arrived than the film's focus shifts to the loving, childlike, sweet, haggard marriage of Kurt and Courtney, who hide out from the Nevermind whirlwind by playing house. The home-video footage—much of it shot by Love's bandmate Eric Erlandson—is a LOT to take in. It includes clips of the couple joyfully bathing and playing with their new baby, Courtney's boobs, Kurt's sores, a close-up of kissing that basically puts the viewer inside of their mouths, Kurt in a dress pantomiming as Courtney reads hate mail, and most heartbreakingly, Kurt nodding out as Courtney attempts their daughter Frances's first haircut. This part of the film shows a long-forgotten/oft-denied aspect of the Kurt-and-Courtney saga: They are obviously in love. They're also surprisingly hilarious together. And so young. And so fucked. Heroin lurks, but is neither glamorized nor demonized. Love comes off more positively than usual—which isn't hard, considering how she is usually portrayed. They both become way more human as we linger on their weird, goofy drug cocoon, where Cobain seems happier than any other time we see him. Which makes everything more complicated than it already was. And then it gets even heavier.
During his infamous last concert, Cobain jokes around during sound check, looks better than he has in a while, and performs beautifully. Back in Aberdeen, baby Kurt Cobain blows kisses while attempting to feed a cracker to a ceramic turtle, shining under the attention from the camera. And then the film ends, abruptly, and you're left with all this new information about all these old feelings.