On the screen before me, a blond boy blows out his first birthday candle. Seconds later he is surrounded by his family at his second birthday party. A family member is heard asking, “Who are you?” With eyes that are innocent and transparent, the young boy turns around and utters, “I am Kurt Cobain.”
This is Cobain: Montage of Heck, the long-awaited documentary about the tormented soul of the Nirvana frontman. It is the paean to the man who roared so loud his name reverberated through the annals of rock history. In conversation with Joanna Theodorou, a director studying at the New York Film Academy, we discuss about Kurt's association with heroin chic, Courtney Love and capitalism.
EF: Do you think that this is just another Kurt Cobain sad documentary? Haven't we had enough?
JT: I think Cobain is a piece of pop culture,” says Joanna Theodorou, a director studying at the New York Film Academy. “His legacy and lifestyle is always relevant as it will always be recycled by the pop media to no extend. I think with the passage of time and distance it is beneficial to see a perhaps more objective view of him and also educate the younger generations on terms and ideas they parrot without understanding.
EF: Cobain’s widow, Courtney Love, approached director Brett Morgan and gave him a shitload amount of Cobain’s possessions. Brett was given unrestricted access to the archive of 200 hours of audio, 4,000 pages of diaries, home videos, complete editorial freedom and final edit. What do you think of that?
JT: In other cases - if it were anyone else's story, it would have come as a given that the filmmaker gets full creative control over his own project. It would be silly to even argue about. We are indeed talking about an iconic figure, but let's bear in mind that we are also talking about a filmmaker's vision of them. Brett was given the material and he must make what he will out of it. That's how it goes in most cases and this should not be an exception.
EF: Brett doesn’t bother with painting the pretty picture and he sure as hell doesn’t romanticize Cobain’s drug abuse. Instead the documentary takes a rather unflinching approach to some dark times. For the last 25 years, Cobain did represent heroin chic and to many he is just a guy who took drugs and killed himself.
JT: Heroin chic may have derived through Cobain and his generation of musicians, but the trend has now long escaped that sphere of industry. It has bled through into fashion, film, and contemporary culture in ways far more ‘in-your-face’ and pressing. A tribute to its roots is far from glorifying the subject, merely acknowledging where it derived from. The young audiences have already been exposed in ways that are irreparable and education may only help them come to the understanding of the consequences – that is, Cobain's tragic end.
EF: But did Cobain commit suicide? That’s the niggling in the back of everyone’s mind. The LA private detective hired by Love was convinced that she orchestrated Cobain’s homicide.
JT: Courtney and Kurt were people that spend their entire relationship being chased by fame, they faced the consequences of it every day of their lives. As with every famous death there will be the controversy and the stories that surround the case. Love's very public downward spiral that followed his death certainly added wood to the fire. Some of the theories, although quite extreme seem to be grounded by true facts that are hard to overlook. Will we ever know for sure though? Not beyond the fact that Kurt Cobain had once loved a woman named Courtney Love. Did she betray that trust? Perhaps, but there will never be enough evidence to clear that out.
EF: Do you think that Courtney is capitalising on Kurt’s name?
JT: It is easy to suspect a wife for capitalising on her husband's success in any context, I suppose. Their life together was indeed very public, so they tried to hold onto as much privacy as they could. Courtney sharing those tapes and personal belongings, essentially those memories, I think mostly has to do with closure and acceptance. Her future is most likely quite secure through all the royalties she receives for all of his work. There is an integrity that comes with putting together a documentary, a special vow to tell the truth and show the image uncorrupted as it is presented to you. I think that Love's cooperation, her being so open to Morgan has to do with the fact that she wants to help tell that story. And perhaps clear the name of the legends and tall tales that surrounds it and leave behind just the image of the man.
EF: In one Montage of Heck scene, Jonathan Ross introduces Nirvana as “probably the biggest band in the world right now”, an epithet that might now be used for One Direction or whatever. Has the music industry got worse?
JT: The world has definitely changed a lot since Nirvana were the epicentre of cool and the name on everyone's lips. So I believe that it is not about them producing music that is of higher quality compared to One Direction. I am fairly certain that during their time, Nirvana had to face as harsh a criticism for presenting something that was perhaps ahead of its time. And we are talking about a time that was characterised by change so "the biggest band in the world" would certainly be riding that very same wave of change as hard as they could. But if we stop to consider that our age is all about commercial value then we cannot blame One Direction for capitalising on it, in a time where it's quality over quantity and the likes and the hits and the followers are all that counts, it is only natural that "the biggest" would be the ones with the biggest following.
If you can’t react to the situation you find yourself in – whether it is by stopping a song entirely because the crowd is singing along or messing up the intro to the Hit Song that’s completely unrecognizable – then you probably shouldn’t be on stage at all. This wasn’t the case with Kurt. He was a man who understood the primary rule of rock ‘n’ roll: that spontaneity is at the heart of all great rock music, that the idiot boards and sound-bites television saddled us with lead to a deadening of the senses.
There is a scene in the upcoming documentary that shows Kurt Cobain swaddling in a leopard coat and crisp shades with his mouth agape. He couldn’t stand straight even if he tried. He was one crazy, idiosyncratic individual who never took interviews seriously. The look intended stoner. But it also said icon.