Cobain: Montage of Heck [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray ALL - United Kingdom - Universal Pictures
Review written by and copyright: James-Masaki Ryan (15th July 2015).
The Film

In September 1991, DGC records was about to release the band Nirvana’s second album “Nevermind”, the first for their label, along with the first single off the album “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. DGC were promoting it in a similar fashion to Sonic Youth’s 1990 album “Goo” which was also their first on the DGC label, and met with good sales of 250,000 copies and was a hit on college radio. What was unexpected was the reaction coming from mainstream radio stations for Nirvana, starting to play “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and with MTV putting the music video in heavy rotation. Suddenly for the mainstream, a completely new sound of music found its way into listeners’ ears. And also suddenly for Nirvana, they were the biggest rock band in the world. Their shows began selling out everywhere, they were courted for mainstream press interviews, and by January 1992, “Nevermind” famously knocked Michael Jackson’s album “Dangerous” from the #1 spot of the Billboard albums charts. All record labels were in a frenzy signing bands with a similar sound and style to Nirvana, and labels that already had bands with the “grunge rock” sound or a Seattle-based band started to heavily market their catalog. Seattle bands Soundgarden and Pearl Jam (as well as the combined "supergroup" Temple of the Dog) which both released albums prior to “Nevermind”’s release were then belatedly promoted heavily and sales increased drastically. People were hungry for the new music movement. Fans were idolizing Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain in a God-like status, hungry for any interview material, searching for bootleg recordings, copying his fashion, and identifying with his self-depreciating lyrical content.

But who really was Kurt Cobain? “Cobain: Montage of Heck” is not a documentary about the rise of Nirvana, not a documentary about the death of Kurt Cobain, and not a documentary that just pats the star on the back with positives only. “Montage of Heck” puts the audience in perspective through Kurt’s eyes. Using a combination of interviews with people close to Kurt while he was alive, stock footage, home videos, concert performances, media footage, and animated recreations, the film is a chronological look at the short 27 years of the life of the reluctant rock star.

The interviews consist of members of Kurt’s family: his sister, his mother, his father, and also his step-mother. They talk about his childhood, his love for drawing, but also about the affect his parents’ divorce had on him emotionally. Divorce made Kurt emotionally distant from members of his family and also distant toward others in general. The interviews extend to Kurt’s ex-girlfriend, Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic, and Kurt’s widow Courtney Love who talk further about his music and artwork. Apparently drummer Dave Grohl could not be interviewed at a convenient time, and when he was finally available, the movie had been edited together, so unfortunately he is not in the movie besides archival footage.

The archival footage is a mix of many different sources. The early 8mm home movies of Kurt with his family is used for many early scenes, while there is also video footage Kurt performing which is consumer grade VHS. There are also a variety of other sources from the media, ranging from MTV interview footage, concert performances, and news interviews. Some of the most treasured material is the behind-the-scenes and outtake footage of the music videos, including “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Heart Shaped Box”, taken from the original film stock. Many music videos shot on film have not been preserved besides a standard definition video master, so it is a revelation to see the footage in such clarity here. Also available here is home video footage of Kurt and Courtney both before marriage and after marriage, which really shows their love and hilariously fun relationship, but also some destructive elements mixed in. Also are a few shots of Courtney flashing her boobs in her usual fashion for the camera.

For some scenes, some animation by Stefan Nadelman and Hisko Hulsing is used for scene recreations. In a similar style to “A Scanner Darkly” in terms of look and color, it shows a few scenes of Kurt during his teens, and also later while he was in a destructive phase post-stardom. In the animation scenes, it uses Kurt’s voice from song demos or from audio recordings of interviews and telephone calls. The animation looks great, but knowing that Kurt played guitar left handed, it is unusual that the animated Kurt plays right handed. An oversight?

Academy award nominated director Brett Morgen was approached by Courtney Love to make a documentary on Kurt back in 2007. For years there had been bad blood between former Nirvana members and Courtney Love over royalties and other materials. The family members had never given interviews before and it would have been a nightmare to get everyone to sign on for the film, but it was one person who was able to get the trust issues sorted out: Kurt’s only daughter Frances Bean Cobain. With her blessing on the project as executive producer, everyone was on board. Love had been very protective over the Nirvana legacy, being very intrusive over compilations and reissues which caused controversy, but unusually for this film, she gave full creative control over to Morgen, and did not see the final cut of the film until its premiere. Morgen was given access to the entire Kurt Cobain archives, which happened to be a tiny storage space with only about 15 cardboard boxes filled with paintings, promo material, notebooks, and hundreds of cassette tapes. One cassette entitled “Montage of Heck” was a mixtape by Kurt, made by mixing various songs, adding sound effects and words from television and movies, and sampling his own voice into the recordings. Obviously very different from the sound of Nirvana’s straightforward rock songs, director Morgen has stated the recordings on the “Montage of Heck” made him feel closer to understanding Kurt, and decided to name the film after that tape. The notebooks filled with memos, lyrics, personal poetry, and drawings were also very important to understanding Kurt’s mind, and the words and images of the notebooks are prominently featured in the film.

Fans thought they understood Kurt by listening to the music and reading or watching various interviews. But when he killed himself in 1994, people were confused, dumbstruck, and shocked. But was it really a surprise at all? The film looks at the pressures he went through: the childhood trauma of not being loved, the thought of being humiliated, the backlash and extremely negative reactions from fans when he married Courtney Love, and how his health deteriorated more as he got more famous.

As close as you can get, no one will ever understand another human being fully. Don’t expect to fully “get” Kurt and everything about him after watching the film, but it will answer quite a few whys and hows, especially with his upbringing and the influence it had later on in his life.

Note this is a region ALL Blu-ray disc, which can be played back on all Blu-ray players worldwide.

Video

Universal’s Blu-ray is in the 1.78:1 ratio in the AVC MPEG-4 codec. Home movies and video footage that was shot in 1.33:1 has been cropped to fit the 1.78:1 ratio, so there are no black bars on the frame, and there is no stretching of the image. The new interviews look pristine as they were shot digitally with multiple camera angles. The 8mm home movie footage looks very good, with minimal dirt and specs and colors reproduced well. Seems the home movies were preserved in good condition and has been transferred to high definition for the film. The footage of home videos from VHS sources and various MTV and news footage look weak, but understandably so. The biggest surprise as mentioned before is the dailies, rushes, and outtakes of the music videos that were transferred from original film elements and look extremely clean. Wish there were more to be seen.

Audio

There are two soundtrack options on the film:

English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
English LPCM 2.0 stereo


Nirvana songs in lossless 5.1 sound incredible, so be sure to turn it up loud. Directional sounds are used for music while dialogue is central. There are occasions that dialogue is harder to hear since it comes from less than ideal sources, but there’s nothing seriously unintelligible. Not just songs performed by Nirvana, there are also Nirvana covers, done instrumentally or chorally which give an interesting alternate feel to the harder original songs.

There are a multitude of optional subtitles:

Arabic, Bulgarian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English HoH, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hindi, Hungarian, Icelandic, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin (Simplified), Mandarin (Traditional), Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese (Brazilian), Portuguese (European), Romanian, Spanish (Castilian), Spanish (Latin), Swedish, Thai, Turkish

The disc is identical worldwide, although the US release’s specs have not been confirmed yet.

Extras

The list of extras for the release is very small:

Interview with Don Cobain (5:20)
The first 5 minutes of the interview with Kurt’s father Don is presented here unedited.
in 1080p, 1.78:1

Interview with the director Brett Morgen (12:54)
Morgen sits for an interview and talks about the project. He mentions how “Pink Floyd’s The Wall” had a huge impact on the style of the film, getting the trust from the Cobain family, especially with Frances Bean getting the project fully realized. Also is footage of Morgen going through the archival materials. The interview is very short, but gets a lot of information across in the timespan.
in 1080p, 1.78:1

Trailer (2:30)
in 1080p, 1.78:1

And that is all…
So where are the other discarded interview materials? No post-interview with Dave Grohl either. I wish there was an option to see the music videos and the dailies and outtakes too. Also, no commentary track. Overall a bit disappointing to see only 20 minutes of extras on the release.

Overall

“Cobain: Montage of Heck” is the only officially endorsed documentary about the life of Kurt Cobain by the family members. There are many unofficial documentaries such as “About a Son” and “Kurt & Courtney” and fictionalized reenactment films such as “Last Days” and the recent “Soaked in Bleach”. The film is highly recommended for music fans, but fans looking for extras will be disappointed.

In addition, a companion hardback book has been released. The US release of "Montage of Heck" is a 160 page hardback book by Insight Editions, while the UK release of "Montage of Heck" is a 206 page hardback book by Omnibus Press.

A soundtrack album has yet to be released, but Morgen has stated that an 85 minute double album is in the works.

The Film: A- Video: A Audio: A Extras: C- Overall: A-

 


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