When journalist Michael Azerrad first met Kurt Cobain in 1992, he half-expected to find him shooting up heroin or smashing a guitar or screaming bloody murder into a microphone. After all, that's all he'd heard and read about Cobain — that he was "a known heroin user," a paranoid maniac and an absolute terror to interview.
But instead, at the end of a long hallway in a Los Angeles apartment, Azerrad came toenail-to-painted-toenail with Kurt Cobain: a slightly off-kilter, but ultimately ordinary, 25-year-old.
"All I knew was that he was a guitar-smashing junkie who screamed," Azerrad said. "Courtney [Love] greeted me at the front door of their apartment, and we walked down this long hallway, with a bedroom down at the end. And I was just dreading what I was going to find in that bedroom. But what I found was a man lying in bed, with his feet pointed towards the door. His feet were sticking out from underneath a blanket, and his toenails were painted red. He was extremely nice, told me to come in and sit down. And then he offered me some grapes."
Azerrad interviewed Cobain for a Rolling Stone cover story, but he got more than a feature out of their initial meeting. The two struck up a fast friendship — "We bonded over the fact that both of us were small kids who didn't relate to the jocks in high school," Azerrad laughed — that would last for the remainder of the Nirvana frontman's life.
"Some people have a certain mental picture of him. ... They think he was some sort of gibbering junkie, but he wasn't," Azerrad said. "He was a smart, really insightful guy. He would be the guy you would go to if you had a personal problem and needed to talk to somebody. It sounds ironic, but it was true. He gave out the best advice."
And so in late 1992, when Azerrad brought up the idea of writing a book about Nirvana, Cobain was excited. Over the next few months, he would invite the author out to his Seattle home to do interviews under rather unique conditions.
"I'd fly out to Seattle from New York, and he'd call me and say, 'OK, great, come over at around midnight,' " Azerrad said. "So I would take a nap, and then I'd head over. And we'd start talking, and often keep talking until the sun came up. It was basically a man, in his kitchen, talking to someone he trusts in the wee hours of the morning. The TV was always on. He was a huge 'Speed Racer' fan. He loved Chim Chim the monkey. He'd be sitting in his kitchen wearing ripped jeans and a pajama top."
"His death hit me really, really hard, and I couldn't bring myself to listen to the tapes," he said. "I still haven't listened to a Nirvana record since. Maybe I've heard a Nirvana song playing somewhere, but I usually leave the room."
Fast-forward almost a decade, as Azerrad was interviewed for the They Might Be Giants documentary "Gigantic (A Tale of Two Johns)." After wrapping the shoot, he struck up a conversation with director AJ Schnack. The two bonded over their admiration of Nirvana, and Azerrad casually mentioned that he had more than a day's worth of interviews with Cobain just sitting in his apartment. And immediately, something clicked in Schnack's mind.
"I thought back to a few years ago, when my nephew was getting into Nirvana," Schnack recalled. "I could tell that everything about it was being filtered through the controversies at the end of Kurt's life: the drug use, the suicide, the tabloid aspects of it. And I thought, 'Wow, it's too bad that for him and his generation, it's always going to be about this iconography.' So pretty much right there, we decided to do something with the tapes."
The two began listening to the Cobain interviews, jotting down notes at key points and discussing just how to make these incredibly revealing sound bites into a film. And strangely, both had the same idea: Let's just make the tapes the film.
"We didn't want to call it a documentary," Azerrad said. "We'd call it a nonfiction film, because it wasn't really going to trace a journalistic narrative. It became more of an intimate visit with a person who a lot of people thought they understood but probably didn't. You're listening to him talk in these very intimate conversations, and you get a feeling that I don't think anyone has ever gotten from Kurt. He talks about his generation — the world as it was when he was a kid and the world it became later."
"It won't fit into what anyone is expecting about a Kurt Cobain documentary, and it's not a traditional rock doc," Schnack added. "There's no archival footage in the film, and Kurt only appears at the very end. Basically it's the chance to sit with his voice and listen to him tell his story."
The end result of their two-year collaboration is "Kurt Cobain About a Son," a film that reveals the man behind the larger-than-life persona. Based on 90 minutes of conversation taken from the tapes, coupled with ethereal, ambient photography shot in the Washington towns of Aberdeen (where Cobain was born), Olympia (where he spent his late teens) and Seattle (where he died), it's a documentary only in the loosest sense of the word. Rather, through Cobain's own, unguarded conversations, the film weaves a personal, haunting bio of the man very few knew.
"Kurt has become a cipher over the past 12 years, where people have built up a very ironclad opinion of what they think he was, based on speculation and gossip and some books," Azerrad said. "But there is nothing like hearing the man himself speak. You can hear the tone of his voice. He speaks very candidly sometimes; at various points he's talking with his mouth full; at various times you can hear him smoking a cigarette. And on one level he's just another guy, and on another level, you realize that he was a very, very special man."
Aside from Cobain's narrative, the film is also punctuated throughout by the music he loved — well-documented favorites like the Melvins and David Bowie of course, but also lesser-known faves like Queen, R.E.M. and Cheap Trick. Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard and Pacific Northwest producer Steve Fisk (who helmed sessions for almost every regional band of note, including Nirvana) also provide a plaintive, ambient soundtrack.
"In our conversations, it was incredibly apparent that Kurt was a walking encyclopedia of music," Azerrad laughed. "Music played an important part of his development as a person and as an artist. So it was imperative to have that music in the film."
"About a Son" will make its worldwide debut on September 10 at the Toronto International Film Festival, and after that Schnack and Azerrad hope to take the film nationwide. But they both want potential viewers to be warned: The film is far from easy viewing.
Schnack and Azerrad insist that nothing involving the life of Cobain should be categorized as "easy."
"I've only showed the film to my girlfriend, and she was like, 'I'm really shaken by this,' " Azerrad said. "It's very intense. You don't watch it and think, 'Oh, this is pleasant. I feel like I know him much better now.' You're going to walk out of the theater and need a minute to collect yourself. He's brutally honest in a way, and that only helps to tear down the 12 years of mythologizing and cartoonish overstatement and speculation of his life. It just leaves you feeling stripped."
"The movie is funny in a way and brutal in others. And listening to his voice, coupled with the visuals of the places he lived, it's both mesmerizing and haunting," Schnack added. "You get the feeling that he was an ordinary guy — with problems and issues — who sort of became famous despite that. He was this really extraordinary ordinary man."
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