SAN FRANCISCO -- In his controversial 99-minute biopic/mockumentary "Kurt and Courtney," British filmmaker Nick Broomfield ostensibly set out to prove a conspiracy surrounding the 1994 shotgun suicide of Nirvana leader Kurt Cobain.
But he ended up with two very different stories.
First, there is a clumsy attempt to unveil an alleged but unproven conspiracy to snuff out the singer -- supposedly masterminded by Hole leader Courtney Love, Cobain's wife. And there is a comedy of errors, played out by a cast of marginal figures who are grasping for their 15 minutes of fame on the basis that they had been in some sort of proximity to Cobain.
The film, which revels in the drug use and dysfunctional relationship of its protagonists, has just opened in a limited engagement at San Francisco's Roxie Cinema, the first film house to commit to showing it.
Broomfield -- infamous for low-rent documentaries about L.A. madam Heidi Fleiss and serial killer Aileen Wuornos -- is a droll narrator. He's also unafraid to inject himself into this sometimes hilarious, sometimes pathetic ramble about the power of celebrity. It's a cautionary tale that also becomes the story of a ratty pack of hangers-on, who try to benefit from the "Love Killed Kurt" accusation by turning it into a cottage industry. When neither of these approaches works as compelling cinema, Broomfield settles for the attempted character assassination of Love.
At the start, the film seems like a standard biopic about Cobain's short, sad life, tediously playing into the cult of celebrity that has already sainted the reluctant grunge poster-boy. You visit the home of his Aunt Mary, a sweetly awkward, doe-eyed woman who plays a tape of a 2-year-old Cobain bellowing the Beatles' "Hey Jude."
Broomfield then visits Cobain's grade school and his "first love," a woman named Tracy Miranda. But soon after these profiles, Broomfield's low-budget flick takes a tailspin into sycophantic nonsense.
"Kurt and Courtney" -- which was pulled from the recent Sundance film festival at the 11th hour due to problems with clearances on Nirvana ("Smells Like Teen Spirit") and Hole ("Doll Parts") music owned by Love and threats of legal action from Love's camp -- spends the next hour following a trail of circus geeks and blood-suckers.
"She offered me 50 grand to whack Kurt Cobain, blow his fucking head off," grunts the late El Duce (Eldon Hoke), a notorious Los Angeles musician who suggests that Love promised him money to kill her husband. Of course, this claim, for which there is not a shred of evidence, is coming from the red-eyed leader of the laughable psycho-punk band the Mentors, whose first words to Broomfield are "Where's the booze?"
It's hilarious to watch the hapless Broomfield pinball from one pointless interview to the next, allowing himself to be drawn into patently ridiculous and hollow situations. He nearly gets arrested while trying to interview a woman at the Washington State lottery office that Cobain reportedly liked to pepper with a pellet gun when he lived across the street.
Broomfield visits one of the Cobains' purported drug buddies, clumsily tripping into the wrong apartment at first. When he finally comes face to face with the woman, she's a dimwit with excessive makeup and a spaced-out attitude who faintly recalls Love before her recent Hollywood makeover.
Then, there's Dylan Carson, Cobain's alleged best friend. Leader of the band Earth, Carson is credited with buying the shotgun that Cobain used to kill himself. The nervous, splotchy-faced creature claims that the couple's drug habit led to some tragicomic double-dealing. "Kurt would be on one line asking for speed and Courtney would be on the other line asking for dope," fidgets Carson. "And they'd both tell me not to tell the other one."
Private detective Tom Grant, hired by Love to find an AWOL Cobain prior to his death, is also interviewed. He attempts, unconvincingly, to back up his claims that Love set the singer up. And Broomfield finds a blank-faced ex-nanny who cared for the couple's baby daughter, a woman who says that Love was obsessed with Cobain's will.
Love's father, ex-Grateful Dead tour manager Hank Harrison, reminisces about bringing home pit bulls to teach a rebellious Love about his "tough love" method of parenting, while relentlessly plugging the two shoddy books he's penned on Cobain and Love. He also promises Love that "I'll keep kicking your ass cuz I've got you nailed."
When he has decided that he doesn't believe the murder/conspiracy story, the filmmaker turns the movie into an attack on Love. An ex-lover with a grudge depicts her obsession with success, describing her as a ladder-climbing harridan bent on using Cobain to get to the top.
After playing back phone-message tapes of Love threatening a journalist who wrote an unflattering magazine article, Broomfield tries to focus on Love's hypocrisy by ambushing her at the American Civil Liberties Union's salute to filmmaker Milos Forman, an event at which Love was a speaker. Broomfield is shown bum-rushing the stage and taking the audience to task about freedom of speech, after which he is quickly yanked off the stage by the ACLU's president.
Whether or not he intended his film as a parody on rockumentaries, what Broomfield has produced is a kind of grunge "This is Spinal Tap."
But was that his goals when he began to shoot "Kurt and Courtney"? Doubtful. [Fri., Feb. 27, 1998, 9 a.m. PST]