For filmmaker Brett Morgen, the goal of Kurt Cobain documentary “Montage of Heck” wasn’t to create another narrative about the life of the Nirvana frontman, but rather showcase the incredible works of art the rock icon had created before his death in 1994.
“It’s not so much about the artist, it’s about the art that is leading the narrative,” Morgen told an audience attending TheWrap’s Awards Screening Series at the Landmark Theater on Wednesday night. “It’s a tribute to Kurt and how prolific he was.”
The idea for the documentary was born when Cobain’s wife, Courtney Love, approached him in 2007.
“You know the world knows Kurt was the lead singer of Nirvana, but he was really this prolific artist and we have all this art, would you like to make a film about it?” Morgen recounted her saying.
And the couple’s 23-year-old daughter, Frances Bean Cobain, reiterated the same desire — to present her father as an artist.
“Keep it real, and keep it honest,” Morgen said of Frances’ instruction. “She didn’t want to do another retelling of the myth of St. Kurt.”
Initially, Morgen thought there would be a lot of paintings and sculptures that were going to be the foundation for the film. However, he soon realized that there weren’t that many paintings. Instead, there were 4,000 pages of journals Kurt had kept throughout his career, and 200 hours of audio on tapes.
“I think part of this amazing experience for me was that when I went into the materials, I didn’t know what the story was,” said Morgen. “I knew how I would build the story, but I didn’t know what the story was.”
The film gives viewers access to Kurt’s never-before-seen home movies, recordings, artwork, photography, journals, demos, personal archives, family archives and songbooks. It also features dozens of Nirvana songs and performances as well as previously unheard Cobain originals. Because of the lack of video footage, Morgen paired all of the materials he had access to with animation sequences.
One audio recording, in particular, stuck out to Morgen: the previously untold story of how Kurt lost his virginity.
“No one had ever heard it, and no one knew of its existence,” he said. “That was a story that Kurt had wrote out in his journals so there was the fact that he had written and recorded it, and he didn’t just record it, he performed it … The first time I heard it I was sort of stunned about what he said about suicide, particularly in light of what happened to him.”
It’s in the home videos, recordings and journals that the singer expresses a talent of literary expression that was absent when he spoke to the media, which is seen several times throughout the two-and-a-half-hour documentary.
“It presented a side of Kurt, a warmth, an absence that we didn’t get with his interrelations with the media,” said Morgen. “Of all the medias that Kurt expressed himself in, the one area he wasn’t very fluid in was doing interviews.”
Although Morgen didn’t show the documentary to Love or Frances until it was finished, he received tremendous praise and support from Kurt’s family members.
“[Frances] said, ‘Thank you for giving me two and a half hours with Kurt that I didn’t know I was going to have,” Morgen said. And when Kurt was alive, Frances didn’t have much time with him, since the grunge rock star took his own life with a gunshot wound to the head when she was only two years old.
“I think it shows the struggle,” he added. “He’s not just a junkie — you saw the love he had for his daughter and the battle he is waging for himself.”
“Montage of Heck” is currently available to watch on HBO’s streaming services. Watch the video from the screening series above.
TheWrap Awards Screening Series 2013 (Photos)
See the stars and filmmakers that took part in TheWrap’s 2013 Awards Screening Series