I emailed Michael Azerrad on August 23 of this year. It was the day I found out Kurt Cobain About A Son had not only been made, but was going to have its first festival screening. In the email I expressed my excitement about the film, as I’ve been a fan of Nirvana for many years. I’ve also been an admirer of Michael’s work, especially Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana. It was that book, and later Charles Cross’ book Heavier Than Heaven: A Biography of Kurt Cobain, that really got me interested in Kurt’s life. After reading as much as I had about Kurt and Nirvana, I felt like I knew quite a bit about his life. While there were certainly some extraordinary parts, he was just a guy who played in a band that wrote some of the best songs I’ve ever heard. Nirvana’s music spoke to me in a way that no other band had been able to do. It was the raw emotion, the sentimentality and the brilliant instrumentation. It spoke to me, and I wasn’t alone.
Kurt Cobain About A Son is an important film for people to see, not only because it shows Kurt simply as a young man, but also redefines what a documentary can be. It’s one of the most unique, if not the most unique documentaries I’ve ever seen. It’s not a documentary on Nirvana, it doesn’t contain any Nirvana music, it has almost no photos of Nirvana (or Kurt) except at the very end and contains little discussion of the music. The film is an intensely emotional look at Kurt’s life in his own words. Those words were drawn from 25 hours of taped conversations between Kurt and Michael Azerrad. The visuals were comprised of imagery from Aberdeen, Olympia and Seattle. These were not only places where Kurt had lived, but marked three distinct points in his life and the film. Each place had a particular feel. Whether it was different film, a richer or duller color palette, the emotion in the visuals and hearing Kurt’s voice was stunning.
He talked about everything from first getting together with Krist in high school, to living with Dave in a depressingly small apartment, to meeting Courtney for the first time to his thoughts on drugs, family and life. It’s actually difficult for me to recall many specifics, but there were definitely some laughs and other times I found myself angry for what a contradictory asshole he could be. I remember feeling the same when I was reading the books and articles sometimes. The candor and honesty in Kurt’s conversation was amazing, no doubt a reflection of the trust he had for Michael. During one particular point in the interview Kurt is expressing his utter hatred and disgust for journalists. He thinks they are the scum of the earth and says as much. In a split second of awkwardness as Kurt realizes he’s talking to a journalist, he assures Michael that he’s not part of the 99% to which he’s referring. It spoke to the friendship between them. That friendship became more apparent as the film progressed and Kurt was revealing more.
Throughout the film I had moments where I had to consciously breathe. I didn’t want to hear or see anything else. The Director, AJ Schnack was able to keenly illustrate the importance of “sense of place,” which he felt was particularly important. He explained, “In creating the visuals, I didn’t want to adhere to anyone’s idea of what “grunge” might look like – either in the cinematography or the editing. I wanted a classic structure – three acts, an overture and two interludes – with composed, dream-like imagery. That imagery, along with the I’ve-been-up-all-night tone of Kurt’s conversation, was intoxicating and haunting at times. The visuals never distracted you from the story. It was like looking out the window of slow-moving bus while someone whispered a story in one ear while a stark soundtrack played in the other. Many times, I felt like I was the only person sitting in the theater.
In much the same way the imagery helped tell the story, the music marked points and provided a sonic foundation that supported the film. Whether it was carefully chosen songs that had direct significance to Kurt such as Queen’s “It’s Late,” Big Black’s “Kerosene,” The Vaselines’ “Son of a Gun,” Scratch Acid’s “Owner’s Lament,” David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold The World” or the gorgeous score by Steve Fisk and Ben Gibbard, music was important to this story. After all, it was Kurt’s story.
Whether you’re a causal or die-hard Nirvana fan, this film will appeal to you. It tells a tragic story through Kurt’s own words, dreamy visuals and music. There are moments where you’ll laugh, feel anger and certainly sadness. Even though you know how the story ends, you’ll find yourself hoping otherwise. It’s the story of Kurt Cobain’s life, but more than that it’s the story about a fellow human being that struggled with depression and was never able to find true happiness inside of himself.
A special note of gratitude to Michael Azerrad and Anne Stulz for making sure I was able to see the film.