Sonic Youth are protective of Kurt Cobain's memory.
As elder statespeople of the '90s alt-rock boom, the band nurtured Nirvana's development and were instrumental in bringing them to the mainstream. Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore brought the Seattle trio to the attention of their label, Geffen subsidiary DGC, which signed Nirvana in 1990 and released the seminal Nevermind the following year. That paternal support is evident in "1991: The Year Punk Broke," a film documenting the Sonics' European tour with a then-little-known Nirvana as the opening act.
Since Cobain's suicide in 1994, Moore and wife/bandmate Kim Gordon have remained relatively quiet on the subject of Cobain. So when indie auteur Gus Van Sant ("Good Will Hunting," "To Die For") approached them about a film based on the fallen star, they were initially taken aback.
"It was kind of weird at first," Moore said. "Everything that seems to have been written about [Kurt] was about the mythology and exploiting the subject for the sake of ego. But we trusted Gus; we thought he would deal with it more like a filmmaker and make it more of an artistic and poetic thing."
Respected for influential indie films like "Drugstore Cowboy" and "My Own Private Idaho," Van Sant sees "Last Days" as the last in a trilogy of films based on actual deaths that he began with 2002's "Gerry" and the following year's "Elephant." Made for a remarkably low $3 million, "Last Days" is open-ended, stripped-down and lacks a conventional narrative and plot; what little dialogue there is was mostly improvised. The film's absence of typical rock deification and clichés helped draw the Sonics into the project.
"Gus has a certain honesty and integrity, and I know that he and Kurt communicated and there was a lot of mutual respect between those two," Moore said.
Originally, Moore's position on the film was "music curator," but with his expansive knowledge of and friendship with Cobain, his role soon grew to adviser and mentor to actor Michael Pitt, who plays Cobain doppelganger Blake in the film. The resemblance is eerie and uncanny.
"I spent time with [Pitt] to hip him to the fact that the character he's referencing wasn't just a lost junkie rock star cliché, even though [Cobain] was conflicted about becoming such a thing," Moore said. "[Cobain] was serious, an intellectual to some degree creatively, and had a very sharp wit. While Michael doesn't necessarily outwardly display all of that onscreen, it was certainly part of his creative thought process."
Indeed, Blake does little more than mumble most of the time, which contributes to the film's abstract and quiet portrayal of a life in slow decay.
In another unconventional move, the film utilizes lyrical and hypnotic instrumental music rather than the expected alt-rock fare. "They're very feminine," Gordon said of the musical pieces. "It's not like this boy-rock thing that you [might have] expected. I thought that was a very sensitive idea, 'cause that was sort of Kurt's nature."
In the film, Gordon plays a record-company executive who asks Blake if he has seen his daughter recently, and tries to persuade him to abandon the house and the vices that are fueling his demise -- an opportunity Gordon regrets she never had in real life.
"We didn't have much contact with Kurt that last year and a half; he was pretty much distanced," Gordon recalled, becoming visibly choked up. "[With the dialogue in the film], I was really thinking about what could have hopefully jolted [Cobain] out of his perspective."
"I think anybody who knew Kurt fantasizes about some conversation that they could have had with him that might have saved this person from such a tragedy," Moore added.
Moore has high praise for Pitt, who performs two of his own songs in the film, "Death to Birth" (which strongly evokes Nirvana's MTV Unplugged in New York LP) and the free-form "That Day." In fact, Moore is advising Pitt's band, Pagoda, and may release their debut album on his Ecstatic Peace label. "He's not just this typical actor wanting to be a rock star," Moore said. "He's outside of the whole Hollywood milieu. He's this kid from Jersey who was on 'Dawson's Creek,' but he's really involved with creative enterprises."
Not surprisingly, the differences and similarities between Pitt and Cobain evoked many bittersweet memories for Moore and Gordon. "I suddenly realized Michael was much taller than Kurt, and much more buff, actually, "Gordon laughed. "Kurt was a wee little man, with these big piercing blue eyes and this tremendous smile -- and that's one thing that nobody can replicate."