Directed and written by Brett Morgen
This is obviously a no-brainer for any Nirvana fan. As much as I hate to admit it, some credit has to be given to Courtney Love for finally allowing us to see into the tortured soul of Kurt Cobain. Twenty years we waited. I was eight years old when Kurt died. Being immersed wholly in the music at the time, his death wasn’t something I could fully understand. Nor was I aware of the relentlessness of the media towards him that obviously contributed to it all. All I knew was that at seven years of age, I had found this person who I somehow connected to. It wasn’t until I grew up a bit into my teens when I realised why his music was powerful, and while I read articles complaining about nonsensical lyrics, to me, they made perfect sense. Each and every song. Every line. I never thought I would be lucky enough to see something like this. So with great hesitance I must thank Courtney for allowing us to see into his final few years. However, she is certainly no fucking saint, no no, not by a long shot. Despite being the reason this documentary exists, she certainly does nothing to discredit the nasty things said about her, and the fact that she almost certainly had the final cut on this film looms over the entire story for those familiar with it.
The film follows Kurt’s life in a chronological fashion, beginning with old recordings of him as a child with his parents narrating, commenting on his ‘hyper’, never idle hands. The animated sequences that match recordings of Kurt’s voice look fantastic, and serve as a trip into Kurt’s early life that was always different. The animation of a young Cobain’s diaries intensifies this, as we are taken into the hyperactive mind of Kurt Cobain and feel his pain of being rejected by his parents, by almost everyone. It is touching on many levels, even if you aren’t a fan of Nirvana. I have read parts of his diaries, but to see them animated on screen was something else. The pain, the rejection, the humiliation and the alienation felt by Kurt echoes my experiences as a younger person so much, I honestly felt like these diaries could have been my own – just minus, you know, the genius musician part. They offer so much insight into where Kurt’s music came from, and for me it confirmed the reasons why I was able to identify with such abrasive music at seven years of age. It all makes sense to me now.
The film’s greatest strength is that it doesn’t dwell on his death, or the idiotic conspiracy theories that surround it. Rather, it celebrates the music and explores the misunderstanding of one of rock’s greatest musicians. The final act of the film however takes on a darker tone, as Kurt’s flirting with heroin became a full time job. After he marries Love, almost all the home-video tapes show no friends. No band-members. Love freely admits that heroin was a part of the deal when they got together, yet she refuses to acknowledge any responsibility for his death, or for any of his later problems. Not once does she display anything that is close to regret or guilt. If anything, she actually pushes any blame onto the man the film is about, someone who cannot speak against her claims. If she thought she was hated when she was with Kurt, her emotionally disengaged comments about him here will only amplify this hate. On one hand, I could begrudgingly say that it was brave of her to let some of the home footage be shown, as both parents are drugged up to their eyeballs while playing with their baby daughter. It is somewhat disturbing. But on the other side of the coin, I can’t help but think that these videos are just the tip of the iceberg. If that was what she was willing to show, one can only speculate as to whether there are more damning videos that will never see the light of day.
This is the film’s biggest fault, but it was also the only way the film was ever going to get made. She owns all the rights to Cobain’s work; it is obvious that they loved each other. But as I alluded to, all the later home-videos show no friends, making the co-dependent nature of their relationship obvious. Though not directly asked, this of course isn’t reinforced by Love. The only time she expresses any actual emotion is when she answers a question with “Fuck yeah we wanted to have a baby”. Take from that comment what you will; it was the only time she was was actually animated and had emotion in her voice. This comment really does makes me wonder of her true nature, as an odd factor here is that while their daughter is listed as a co-producer of the film, she doesn’t appear on-screen. Whether this was her choice or not I am not sure, but it certainly feels like a missing piece of a puzzle, especially after the home-videos of her as an infant. The same goes for drummer Dave Grohl, whose absence here is rather obvious and adds to the feeling that Courtney Love had a picture of how she wanted this to look long before it was made. If his interviews were to have been included, one would expect them to be as highly edited as those of Kurt’s other band-mate, bassist Krist Novecelic, who is obviously trying to figure out what he can say and what will be simply edited out.
On a technical level, the film is excellently executed, with the perfect mix of live recordings, home videos, animated sequences to match his diaries, and interviews with those who knew him best. There is no doubt that this looks great, and it obviously sounds great too, with many classical renditions of Nirvana songs that are instantly recognisable to a Nirvana fan. The music used throughout appropriately intensifies as we get closer to the end of the film, and how we know it will end. It is an experience, one that will linger in my brain for a while, and not just because of my love for the music. It is a visually striking and unique film about a truly unique person who connected with so many people, but wasn’t ready for what would result from that connection.
As a fan of this band since childhood, I am a satisfied customer. Down under this was screened for a limited time as a feature film, and it certainly enhanced the experience, especially the music and animated sequences. Despite being a thoroughly enjoyable ride, the film raises almost as many questions as it answers; the biggest being ‘how bad did it really get?’ as Love’s presence looms over the entire film and every interview contained within it; I feel that there are many pieces to this puzzle that will never see the light of day. For the fan then, this is a conflicting film. For anyone who isn’t a fan, this is an intensely personal documentary, executed in a slightly surreal and colourful way that is never boring for a second.
4/5 – Recommended to fans of the band or music in general, which I think covers most of the population. Music is a universal language after all.
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