Kurt Cobain has long since shuffled off this mortal coil, entering into the pantheon of Rock Legends immediately upon the discovery of his lifeless body. And yet, as with all Rock Legends, he's still here. Posters of his bleak thousand-mile stare grace dorm room walls, books about his troubled life and transcendent music are sporadically published and posthumous best-ofs and box sets of his music still enter the shops and the charts. And now comes AJ Schnack's biographical film, Kurt Cobain About a Son, here to re-hash the rise and fall of the unwilling voice of a generation.
Except it's not really a re-hash of anything. And there is no footage of Cobain, nor is there any of his music, in the film.
And it just might be the most lucid, gorgeous representation of Cobain's life available, something breathtakingly original and affecting, simply because it avoids reproducing any of the images or sounds that serve as Cobain's legacy.
Schnack, an Edwardsville, Illinois, native whose previous films include the charming They Might Be Giants documentary Gigantic (A Tale of Two Johns), achieves this effect in part by having Cobain narrate his own life. Using more than 25 hours of unheard interview tapes journalist Michael Azerrad compiled while working on his book Come As You Are: The Nirvana Story as the soundtrack, Schnack has Cobain lead us through his life from childhood through mid-1992. The tapes alone are more revealing and personal than most interviews with Cobain ever were. Azerrad clearly earned a generous measure of Cobain's trust over the course of the year-long cycle of conversations, and Cobain is open about subjects that normally made him famously prickly: his drug use, his songwriting, and his relationships with his band mates, especially their contentious arguments about writing credit and publicity demands.
What elevates About a Son from mere bio-pic into art is Schnack's choice to put the viewer in Cobain's life; Schnack filmed new footage in the three main Washington cities that shaped Cobain's life Aberdeen, Olympia and Seattle and mates it with Cobain's narration. The audio-visual match is not exact; it's more an interpretation of whatever Cobain is discussing, which leads to beautiful, even poetic, moments. Belching smokestacks fill the screen as Cobain dismisses the myth that growing up in a small town such as Aberdeen means "Everything's supposed to be perfect." His memories of accompanying his father to the elder Cobain's job at the lumberyard give way to a story about hiding in the van and listening to the same Queen album over and over on these trips; Queen's bombastic rock plays as boards slide down an assembly line, making even the repetition of factory work seem dramatic and exciting. When Cobain recalls how visual art and writing helped him find his identity amid the hostility of high school, footage of an Aberdeen classroom is overlaid with images of teenagers swimming in blue water, a clever nod to Nevermind's iconic cover.
And that may be the only drawback to Schnack's method; how much you appreciate the evocative juxtaposition of Cobain's memories and Schnack's footage depends on how much you already know about Cobain's life. If you're not familiar with Cobain's penchant for using plastic baby dolls in his art, will the quick snippet of a pile of broken dolls and thrift-store flannel shirts that accompany his memories about discovering punk rock strike a chord? Maybe not. But the film is rife with these little moments, and they are magical for the well-versed fan.
These instances can cut both ways, however: If you know of Cobain's shotgun suicide, every instance of him casually mentioning "blowing my brains out" due to stomach pain, or boredom, or the thought of going on tour again, tolls heavily in the darkened theater. His first impressions of meeting his wife Courtney Love also echo grimly: "I thought she was, like, Nancy Spungen," referencing Sid Vicious' ill-fated girlfriend, allegedly stabbed to death by Sid in a drug-fogged argument.
Near the end of the film, Azerrad asks Cobain if "his is a sad story." "No," Cobain replies thoughtfully. "It's nothing amazing or new." Courtney is heard on tape for the first, and only, time calling down to Kurt to bring up a Similac bottle when he's done talking. It's an eerie, jarring domestic interlude, precisely because it's so quiet and normal and un-amazing and so at odds with how Kurt and Courtney have been portrayed to the world outside their home. Kurt has the family he's longed for, he sounds happy, she sounds happy they are every young family trying to balance work and a child. And within a few months of the interview, Cobain throws it all away. About a Son doesn't explain why he did it. But it does reveal the very human being who was reduced to being merely an idol.