Thirteen years after he committed suicide in his Seattle home, Kurt Cobain speaks again in this strikingly impressionistic documentary. The film is a collaboration between director AJ Schnack (whose aversion to punctuation accounts for both the run-on title and his own period-free initials) and journalist and author Michael Azerrad, whose 1993 book, “Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana,” remains the definitive account of that great band. In the course of working on the book, Azerrad (who, I should note, is a long-time colleague) conducted some 25 hours of interviews with Kurt Cobain. These were held between December 1992 and March 1993, mostly from midnight to dawn in the house Cobain was living in at the time, in the Sand Point section of Seattle.
Over the years since his death on April 5, 1994, our memory of Cobain has settled into blurry biographical ready-mades: the grunge genius, the manic-depressive druggie, the sensitive artist tormented by an unwanted rock-stardom he actually despised … the guy who married Courtney Love. “About a Son” enlarges our understanding of this complex man, and it clears up a lot of things — or, more precisely, it allows Cobain to do so, in his own voice (see ” ‘About A Son’ Conversations Give A Glimpse Into The Kurt Cobain Few Knew” ).
For example, he is emphatic about the fact that he had a happy childhood. He recalls a favorite aunt giving him Beatles records and also his first instrument, a Hawaiian guitar. He remembers draining the battery in his father’s van listening to an eight-track cassette of Queen’s News of the World. But he also remembers, with undimmed bitterness, his parents splitting up before he hit his teens — part of a wave of marital crackups that affected so many kids of his generation, and for which he blamed their self-absorbed parents. (“They had to sow their oats,” he says bitingly. “They had to start drinking at 30.”)
He remembers darkness setting in: the manic depression that started afflicting him at the age of 9; the painful scoliosis, or spinal curvature, that was later aggravated by strapping on a guitar every night; and the chronic, excruciating stomach pains that eventually drove him to heroin. He realized that the drug had destroyed a number of his friends, but in his case he looked upon it as a form of self-medication. “I’ve thought about dying all my life,” he says. “If I was gonna blow my head off with a gun, I might as well take the risk of taking drugs.” He also talks warmly about his devotion to Courtney Love and their baby daughter, Frances Bean; and he castigates the media that were dogging them through this troubled period. (“Everyone wants to see us die,” he says.)
Naturally, he also discusses music. His creative ambition, he says, was to fuse the melodic popcraft of the Beatles with the monster sonic assault of Black Sabbath. And although he eventually came to hate the commercial demands and phoniness of the record business, he says he sought out fame right from the beginning — he wanted to be a rock star. Who knew?
Schnack and Azerrad (who co-produced the movie) haven’t made a standard rock-doc, with the customary weave of concert footage and talking-head anecdotes. They didn’t even bother approaching the Cobain estate about using Nirvana’s music on the soundtrack. Instead, they’ve utilized recordings by some of Cobain’s own favorite bands, ranging from friends like the Melvins and Mudhoney to Bad Brains, Half Japanese and the Vaselines, as well as such bigger-time acts as David Bowie, R.E.M., Iggy Pop and Creedence Clearwater Revival. (Cobain once played in a Creedence cover band.) These tracks are woven into contemporary footage shot by Schnack in the Washington state towns in which Cobain spent most of his life: Aberdeen, Montesano, Olympia and Seattle. This footage recalls the films of Errol Morris, especially his brooding 1988 documentary, “The Thin Blue Line.” Here, as in that movie, carefully assembled aspects of the local environment — in this case, lumber mills, evocative local faces and the damp, loamy Northwest terrain — take on the weight of personality, adding a vivid regional context to Cobain’s soft-spoken and sometimes funny recollections.
Some of his most arresting remarks are about Nirvana. By the time Azerrad started interviewing Cobain, the band had sold several million copies of its 1991 breakthrough album, Nevermind, and had just released a stopgap, buncha-stuff compilation called Incesticide to appease the market until a real follow-up could be recorded. (This turned out to be 1993′s In Utero, Nirvana’s last studio album.) Although he’s sometimes thought to have been a gentle soul eaten up by the music industry, Cobain was not without business instincts. He talks about the resentment of his bandmates, bassist Kris Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl, when he decided that he should take a larger slice of the band’s income, since it was he who wrote the songs and fronted the group. (He dismissed their objections: “That’s bullsh–,” he says.) And here, a year before his death, he is already looking beyond the group, to a future in which he would work with other people and “create something new.”
Toward the end of the film, Azerrad asks Cobain if he thinks Nirvana will last out the decade. “I don’t want it to,” he says. And of course it didn’t — not because he moved on to more interesting things, but simply, sadly, because he didn’t make it either.
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