I turned 11 the day Kurt Cobain was found dead, April 8 1994. My older brother and a friend of mine awkwardly commiserated a bit before we left for school that morning and I had no idea who or what they were talking about. I knew "Weird Al"s "Smells Like Nirvana" like the inside of the fridge, but only had some muzzy idea of its source. All sorts of music came up out of the basement my brother occupied that I couldn't and shouldn't have grasped. But the next year, at 12, I was the proud and solemn owner of a "Kurt Cobain (1967 - 1994)" t-shirt, a blasé, beautiful Cobain staring out from the front. With paper route money, I got the Nirvana catologue from the Music World in the downtown mall and did my best to ape what had become an iconic glower, but soon puberty set in shortly thereafter and that moody moue started to come naturally.
As a tween – that term wasn't in use at the time – Nirvana and their ilk – angry, dour, earnest, as overcast as the Northwest they were hailing from – was the "pop" music I was coming of age to. My generation was too young to have any kind of sensitive understanding of what these songs meant, or where they were coming from, and so we glommed on to the broad strokes, the catchy primary colours of it. If and when we started to experience our own inchoate angst, we had this catalogue of grungy outrage to grow into and appropriate. With Nirvana, and Kurt Cobain especially, we inherited a recent narrative that already had a beginning, middle, and end. In its tidiness, it was all the more salable, so that by the time we got to it, disenfranchisement was franchised.
As a cultural icon, the voice of a generation – the voice of generations, even – Cobain's legacy is pretty stalwart. Miley Cyrus can walk around in a Cobain dress, or cover his anthem, and even though we, the now-aged, may make a face, her identifying with Cobain means something to her swatch of youngster fans. But the Cobain on her dress now is largely the same as the one on my t-shirt in 1995, a culturally over-simplified icon. Though his cultural import remains seemingly strong, the nuances of his actual life and material have been paling since his death.
When someone ends their own life, that final act tends to become a drain down which all their other details spiral. In the case of Cobain's legacy, he is largely defined by his suicide, viewed through the lens of it. Most pictures that get used of him now are of a scowling, haunted, pained tatterdemalion. If he's got a gun in his hand, even better. But this scowling largess – the kind of thing you can put on a shirt – belies the rich veins of humour and goofiness and compassion that were present in Cobain's life as much as they were his music.
Montage of Heck does the service of restoring the colour to Cobain's face, of using as many pictures of him smiling as it does of him looking like he wants to die. Made up largely of never-before-seen illustrations, journals, recordings, home movies, the Cobain documented in Brett Morgen's new documentary grows from a beaming baby to a hyper adolescent, from a displaced and alienated teen to eccentric guy in his mid-20s who's worked hard for the fame he's achieved, but who's increasingly dubious about the attendant responsibility. The tortured genius angle is here replaced by a portrait of a hard-working bullshit detector. Cobain's art is not presented as epochal or revolutionary. His spastic notebook scribbles are the stuff of bad, ragging teenage poetry which only become sui generis through studied refinement. He comes off as not so much a tortured genius as a devoted art-maker tortured by the oppressive perception of genius.
It's a shame that it was only later in my life, when I was older than Cobain was when he died, that I could make some functional sense out of the tonal marbling of Nirvana's music, of Cobain's writing. Sure, the skinny dude screamed and wailed in a way that that apparently every generation can relate to, but it wasn't always furious and wounded. There's so much vim, sometimes even joy, in that music, in that life, that doesn't jibe with the broader cultural impression of the lot of it, and so gets largely ignored. Montage of Heck is exactly the kind of documentary Kurt Cobain deserves: it defrocks him of his legendary status and restores his wonderful, contraditcory humanity.
It's hard to say if the 11-year-old me would have liked this version of his new hero, but take a look at that kid. Who cares what he thinks about anything?