Kurt Cobain: About A Son (Sidetrack Films, NR)

kurt_from_behind_725.jpgThe film is less a biography than an autobiography, telling Kurt Cobain’s story solely in his own words with only Michael Azerrad’s occasional questions breaking up the first person narrative.



The state of mind of Kurt Cobain has proved a source of intense fascination since the Nirvana singer’s death in 1994, and though Cobain’s own journals were published in 2002, few resources have proved as invaluable in that regard as Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana, Michael Azerrad’s 1993 biography published with the band’s input (but without their final approval). The book was culled from countless interviews from friends, family, and band members, including extensive interviews conducted with Cobain in his Washington home just a few short months before taking his own life.


In creating his book, Azerrad made sure to retain all rights to his research material, including the 25 hours of interviews with Cobain that eventually allowed the creation of the new film Kurt Cobain: About A Son. The film as crafted by director AJ Schnack — who previously showed his documentary chops in the They Might Be Giants biopic Gigantic (A Tale of Two Johns) — is less a biography than an autobiography, telling Cobain’s story solely in his own words with only Azerrad’s occasional questions breaking up the first person narrative.


Schnack splits his film into three roughly 30-minute chunks divided by the towns Cobain called home, beginning with Cobain’s youth in the small logging town of Aberdeen. He speaks frankly of his relationship with his parents, particularly his mostly-absent father, and paints a picture of his high school self as an outsider desperate for someone to connect with. This early portion culminates with a brief move to nearby Montesano, bringing Melvins singer/guitarist Buzz Osborne and, by extension, punk rock into Cobain’s life, leading into the film’s second chapter and his time in Olympia, WA. The college town is painted as a bohemian paradise for musicians, the "community of geeks" Cobain desired in high school, yet he says of his time there that he "didn’t fit in with these people…didn’t really want to."


The "Seattle" portion is the section most viewers will be waiting for, and Schnack doesn’t disappoint as he opens with Azerrad’s possibly most loaded question: "How did you meet Courtney?" Schnack edits Cobain’s comments to amplify the wildly varying emotional state he was in during this time by juxtaposing his happiest comments with his angriest ones. It feels like cheating, but you can’t argue with the effectiveness of the technique. Cobain strikes out at his bandmates one minute (he calls sharing songwriting credits with them "fucking bullshit"), then the next says they’re at their most collaborative place ever (after finally co-writing a song together, In Utero‘s "Scentless Apprentice"). In the final portion, Cobain is at his most venomous, and also his deepest in denial, as he goes into a pained explanation of the reasons behind his rampant drug use.


Throughout the film, Cobain is heard, but never seen. Schnack instead filmed extensive new footage in the places that truly affected Cobain: the logging mill his father worked in, the high school that alienated him, the dilapidated apartments he slept in. When his bandmates Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl are mentioned their pictures are shown in passing, but otherwise no archival footage of the band is used. Surprisingly, no Nirvana songs are used in the score, either, the film instead utilizing the songs of Cobain’s favorite bands augmented by a score from Steve Fisk and Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard. For most of the film, the visuals serve merely as backdrop for Cobain’s narrative, and though beautifully shot, the choices can sometimes be distracting, especially when Schnack attempts to pair Cobain’s words with literal visual analogues. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the lengthy high school portion, which Schnack shot in Aberdeen High School using current students. Footage of an isolated geek walking alone down a crowded hall and images of wrestlers grappling in the school’s uniform are meant to amplify Cobain’s words, but they instead reek of obviousness. The film also suffers from languid pacing, which suits the subject matter but makes the film a bear to sit through despite an economical 96-minute runtime.


Though the story of Kurt Cobain is a fascinating one, this particular form is not for the uninitiated. Since the entire movie is told in Cobain’s words in the form of a conversational interview, people and bands and songs are named with little to no explanation, leaving those with no advance knowledge of the Nirvana story at a loss to understand what all the fuss is about. For those already indoctrinated into Cobain’s world, however, the ability to hear his story in his own voice is undoubtedly a big enough draw to overcome About A Son‘s shortcomings. As Cobain rants about the stomach problems that drove him to heroin, he states matter-of-fact-ly, "I wanted to kill myself, I wanted to blow my fucking head off." Schnack lets the words linger, to devastating effect. Those moments, which peak in the film’s stark, funereal ending, are what stick with you. | Jason Green


Visit the film’s website at http://www.kurtcobainaboutason.com

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