Movie review, opening Friday at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport.
Although he was one of the most important rock musicians of the ’90s, with a complicated and often conflicting story and a deep and abiding influence on many who’ve come since, Kurt Cobain hasn’t been well-served by rock documentaries.
There have been countless TV accounts of the rise and fall of Nirvana, all populated with talking heads who barely have a clue about the man and his music. He can be glimpsed in decent films such as “1991: The Year Punk Broke” (1992) and “Hype!” (1996), but those are more about the alternative-rock phenomenon. And then there’s Nick Broomfield’s vile “Kurt & Courtney” (1998), which revels in the musician’s sad end with tacky sensationalism and the journalistic standards the Weekly World News brings to its exclusives about Big Foot and alien abductions.
Cobain deserves a documentary on the level of D A Pennebaker’s “Don’t Look Back” or the Maysles brothers’ “Gimme Shelter.” A J Schnack’s “Kurt Cobain About a Son” is not that movie, but it comes closer to giving us a sense of its subject than any of the earlier attempts -- and that accomplishment is all the more remarkable for the fact that it doesn’t contain a single moving image of Cobain or a solitary note of his music.
The heart of the movie is Cobain telling his story in his own words, sharing his philosophy, worldview and sense of humor with Michael Azerrad, author of the first Nirvana biography -- Come As You Are, published 10 months before Cobain’s death in April 1994 -- and one of the few journalists the musician trusted. (He’s quoted here as saying that 99 percent of the profession is worthless, and indeed, it has generally done little in telling his story to prove him wrong.)
Azerrad, who co-produced the movie, didn’t set out to make a documentary, but to share a glimpse of the real artist behind the rock-star image -- the man he came to know over 25 hours of taped interviews. “It was more about bringing him into the realm of a three-dimensional human being, not the cartoon rock icon,” he told Rolling Stone. “It’s not a look back at Kurt, it’s a look into Kurt.”
Like Azerrad, I had the privilege of spending several hours interviewing Cobain, six months before his death, and I barely recognize the man I met in many of the posthumous portraits of his life. Completely missing are as his wicked sense of humor, the manic enthusiasm that could offset the dark depressions, his sincere love of his daughter Frances and wife Courtney, his intense intelligence and the deep-seated contradictions that could find him excoriating violence at one moment and vowing brutal, bloody revenge on his enemies the next.
That complex person is finally here in all of his glory and torment. For that reason, if “Kurt Cobain About a Son” had been crafted as a podcast or some sort of mixed-media Web site, it could have been four-star brilliant. As a movie, however, it’s hard to overcome the fact that it lacks two essential ingredients that would have made it a great film: captivating visuals and a Nirvana soundtrack. (It’s unclear whether the Cobain estate denied the filmmakers use of his music, or whether they didn’t even ask.)
Instead, in place of the usual footage of the band and interviews with self-proclaimed experts, we get beautifully shot tours of the three Washington state locales that formed Cobain’s consciousness -- Aberdeen, Olympia and Seattle -- and moving portraits of unnamed people in the streets. And rather than Cobain’s music, we hear a well-chosen soundtrack ranging from his early influences (Queen and Credence Clearwater Revival) to punk inspirations (the Melvins and Big Black) to a lovely and sympathetic score (crafted by Steve Fisk and Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie).
In some ways, all of this is in keeping with Cobain’s way of thinking: He told me he could never figure out why “Smells Like Teen Spirit” became a million-selling single while almost no one heard Mudhoney’s “Touch Me I’m Sick,” and I once saw him deny a fan’s request for an autograph by holding out his own hand for the kid to sign instead. He was trying to make the punk-rock point that none of us is anybody special, just as all of us are “rock stars.” A noble thought, but at the end of the day, few of us have created a body of work as extraordinary as Cobain, and while this movie brings us a little closer to understanding its roots, the ultimate film about him has yet to be made.
KURT COBAIN ABOUT A SON [THREE STARS]
Directed and edited by A J Schnack. Produced by Shirley Moyers, Noah Khoshbin, Chris Green and Michael Azerrad. Released by Balcony Releasing and Sidetrack Films. Running time: 97 minutes. This film is not rated.