Since I was a kid with a stack of records in my room and a turnable I stole from my parents, I’ve been a fan of dead rock stars. I don’t think it was any kind of conscious decision — I wasn’t really a goth or a ghoul.
There was Nick Drake, whose collected discology I painstakingly collected in its entirety (which wasn’t hard since he died when he was 26 of an overdose of antidepressants). I used to listen to one of his final songs, “Black Eyed Dog,” on repeat, wondering if he was trying to tell everyone something, as we read some short story in school once about how black dogs are associated with death.
Then there was Jim Morrison, whose face is still plastered all over my childhood bedroom and who remained an obsession through high school into college. I liked his sad poetry books even though they weren’t really that good. I even declined to visit his gravesite on a school trip to Paris because then I’d have to share him with all the other people who had scrawled across every inch of his memorial.
It was with that predilection that I saw HBO’s luminous and crushing documentary, “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck.” If you watched it tonight (May 4), you may be crying. You may be bummed. You may be cursing director Brett Morgen’s name because, as you know by now, the film just ends.
Yup, after watching this man grow up from wild child baby with firecrackers strapped to his chest into a rock star holding his own baby (dazed and confused) — spoilers ahead — the doc leaves you with a few screens and a few scattered pieces of text informing you, the highly invested viewer, that Kurt Cobain is dead.
You may be crying. You may be bummed. You may be cursing. But me? Well, guys, I felt kind of ashamed. Because that’s when I — a girl who has always loved dead rock stars — realized that a person who died long ago isn’t some kind of celestial legend. He’s a guy who died long ago — and he was real. Kind of sad to come to that realization at age 30, but there you go.
These musicians who were separated from me by death — they were safe, I realized later. They couldn’t disappoint me. They couldn’t get older and put out a sh-tty folk record or write a lot of angry autobiographies or become sad, shaded parodies of themselves, rebelling against something that doesn’t need rebelling against anymore. They would always remain young — younger than me, now. They would always remain talented. They would always remain perfect. They were legends because they died young — untouchable like Jesus, or Finny from “A Separate Peace.”
“Montage of Heck” explodes that idea. It makes Kurt Cobain into a man — in part because it ends where a person’s life ends: with his death.
“When I showed the film to Frances Bean [Cobain] for the first time, we were talking afterwards and she said, ’You know what my favorite part of the movie is? The end, when it cuts to black,’” director Brett Morgen told MTV News weeks before the doc aired on Monday. “I was like, ’That was your favorite part of the movie? I don’t know if I should be offended or not.’”
For those who didn’t watch the film tonight, “Montage of Heck” does not end with a funeral. It does not end with that famous recording of Courtney Love reading Kurt’s suicide note or her interview with MTV News following his death. It ends with a black screen.
If this were a fictional film, this is where the audience would rise to their feet, shouting about wanting their price of admission back. When I saw the film in a screening room filled with rock journalists who had — hours before — been chatting loudly about their latest interviews and career coupes, this is where we all sat in the silence and the darkness and thought.
“[Frances told me] ’That’s how it is. That’s how life is. And that’s how death was. And it’s so honest,’” Morgen told MTV. “At some point, it became clear that you couldn’t wrap it up with the bow, like a stupid Hollywood ending. You know, ’Well, Kurt, he’s not here anymore, but you know he’s brought so much comfort and joy in the world!’ No. It was tragic and we needed to sort of show this.”
And they did. They needed to. Kurt Cobain is a very easy dead rock star to fall in love with. He’s an angel-faced man who, as Love says in the film, doesn’t know how attractive he is. He is, as you can see in the film, a misfit from a tumultuous home who just doesn’t fit in — you know, like the skater/stoner/loner in your high school class that you know would understand you if you ever mustered up the guts to talk to him.
To be honest, I was never a Nirvana fan as a kid. I knew all the hits from the radio, sure, and I had burned a live CD from the library and listened to “Lake of Fire” on repeat for a while (kind of similar to “Black Eyed Dog,” no?). I became a real fan pretty recently — when I saw the remaining members of Nirvana play onstage at the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. When I saw Michael Stipe tearfully say, “And that voice … that voice.”
Here was another dead rock star. Another perfect ghost to add to the portrait gallery of icons in my head (where I found my friends, like Kurt did in “Lithium”). He was safe. He was gone. He couldn’t disappoint me by putting out a Christian rock album or launching his own line of shoes or just, you know, putting out a mediocre record that was like “Nevermind 2.0″ without all the angst. He couldn’t grow up.
And then I saw “Montage of Heck.” I sat in the dark and I watched that Peter Pan of the Afterlife growing up strange and sad and angry and talented. I read his journals and saw his angry scrawl. I heard about how he lost his virginity to the girl everyone teased and then almost lay down on the railroad tracks. I saw him playing with his baby and his wife and his family who have to live with the fact that he’s gone — reminded constantly of his golden youth every day by the radio and the TV and fans in shirts with X’d-out eyes and smiley faces.
Then, it all ended, as Morgen said, like life does. There was no one there to tell me that it was all right. No one to tell me that Kurt would go on to be a hero even in death and lead generations of disaffected youth into the knowledge that they are not alone. Because it wasn’t all right. Cobain didn’t die to save us all. He died because — well, we don’t know why. Because it’s not really our business.
Although Morgen told me later that he never felt like he was trespassing on Kurt’s life — that Cobain kept his journals out in the open and talked for hours with journalists even though he said he hated the press — “Montage of Heck” made me feel like I was was spying. I began to fully experience Kurt Cobain as a person — a real person. And I slowly started taking down the portrait gallery of ghosts in my head.
So, this is a “thank you” letter to director Brett Morgen. This is a “thank you” for being a major bummer. This thank you for bringing me to tears. This is a “thank you” for making me feel like kind of an a–hole. This is a “thank you” for the decision to end your documentary the way you did — at the end. In doing so, you made a movie not about a dead rock star — but about a man.