Archive for the ‘Documentaries’ Category

A few days ago, I sat through the 2-hour documentary dissection of Kurt Cobain’s life. The ex-lead singer of 90s grunge band Nirvana, rose to fame, defined a generation, then took his own life. Directed by Brett Morgen, and executive produced by Cobain’s daughter, Francis Bean, Montage of Heck, was full of surprises and not at all what I expected.

The film took a real in-depth look at Cobain’s life, using his old journals, artwork, home videos and the like to paint a very real picture of his tumultuous life. To most people, Kurt Cobain was Nirvana, they were one in the same, but Morgen did a great job of keeping this all about Cobain, while still making Nirvana and his music, footage of earlier gigs and video shoots, an important part of it.

Unlike most documentaries, there wasn’t a lot of narration, or extra information added between takes from the movie makers themselves. They interviewed his mom, dad, stepmom, ex-girlfriend, sister but very superficially. Of course ex-wife Courteny Love made an appearance; Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic offered some insight into Cobain’s mind, and even teared up during the interview. Drummer Dave Grohl was nowhere to be found. There was a lot of audio of Cobain himself talking and telling stories taken from previous interviews, and it felt like he was talking to us.

There was a lot going on at once in certain parts of the film; like sensory overload. Loud images, graphic images, noises, They showed parts of his journals growing up that he kept; words of alienation, loneliness, hate, rage flew across the screen, animated, as though Cobain himself was writing them in that moment, not 25 years ago. Violent figures, distorted drawings, popped up intermittently with no warning, and often seemingly no reason. It felt like you were inside Cobain’s troubled mind.

What was most shocking were the home movies that he and Love made. An extremely invasive insight into their most personal moments. You don’t see a musical genius on screen, but a struggling, confused, unloved kid who didn’t know how to cope with people finally paying attention to him. It was them horsing around, smoking, clearly high on something. Love was nude in more than half of it, prancing around. As a fan, it was really hard to watch. I wanted to remember him as the guy who sang “All Apologies” unplugged, not the guy whose body was deteriorating, while he and his drug-addicted wife tried to raise a newborn.

There was a lot of emphasis on how Cobain was always doing something creative. He just had to write in his journals, he just had to make music, it was the only way he knew how to feel anything. He also loved performing live, even when it sometimes made him sick. That need to express oneself isn’t lost on me, and it made me wonder about the whole idea of musical genius. Whether you like Nirvana’s music or not, you have to at least respect that Cobain’s writing was phenomenal, as dark as it may have been. He died at 27 years old.

Cobain was ignored as a child, likely suffered some sort of mental illness, was addicted to heroin, but was also a fantastic musician. I’ve always wondered if certain artists need/use that struggle to create. Like maybe if he had a happier childhood, he’d have no reason to drown himself in music. What if all his issues were actually precursors to his genius? Or those who believe in a higher power would say he died so young because he had nothing left to give. His impact on the universe was already made, and he had nothing left in him.

I don’t recommend the film for those faint of heart, because there are a lot of disturbing images; not just of him, but of things he wrote, things he drew. The lack of narration made it challenging to put the facts together, like you’re supposed to interpret everything you were seeing your own way; except there was just too much going on. As a fan, I now have a completely different idea of who Kurt Cobain was, and I’m not sure I’m okay with that. Montage of Heck is the perfect title for this film because it really was a mish-mash of Kurt Cobain’s mind, his life, and his chaos, .

The other night I went to see Mistaken for Strangers, a documentary on indie band The National. It’s also the name of a track off their epic 2007 album, Boxer. The premise is that lead singer Matt Berninger asks his brother Tom Berninger (aspiring film maker) to be a roadie on their upcoming tour. Tom accepts without hesitation and decides to take a video camera along with him. What starts as a documentary on the band turns into an in-depth look at a relationship between two completely different people, who happen to be brothers. It’s funny, it’s heartwarming, it’s intense, and most of all honest because it happened naturally.

I learned a lot about The National watching this film: Matt always wears a suit when performing; twin brothers/guitarists Aaron and Bryce Dessner are incredibly down to earth and laid back; bassist Scott Devendorf always rocks a pair of aviators and drummer Bryan Devendorf (Scott’s brother) is the party animal; while everyone else is “coffee house” as Tom puts it. They’re a family made up of family members of different families. You also see different sides of Matt: he gets angry, he laughs, he feels guilty, he tries so hard to make his personal relationship with his brother fit his relationship with his music, his band and his tour, but struggles. He becomes an approachable human, instead of a distant admiration.

Matt talks about when the band first started out years ago, they would play to empty venues and get really discouraged. So they used that fear, anxiety and frustration to fuel their music and all of a sudden people started listening. They made themselves vulnerable, and people saw that, related to it and ate it all up. That’s one of the things about The National: their lyrics are some of the best out there, as if time was spent on selecting every single word making sure it was the perfect fit. They get so zoned when they perform which makes their shows so unbelievable, evidenced by the abundance of live footage in the film.

As icing on the cake, since it was the premiere screening, it was followed by a Q&A with Tom (director), Matt (co-producer), Carin Besser (editor) and Marshall Curry (executive producer.) I watched in awe in the front row as they answered questions like they were chatting with a group of friends – no pretension, no ego, no nothing. They made fun of each other, cracked jokes, as if this was no big deal. Whereas to fans, it was quite the opposite. I managed to muster up the courage to raise my hand and Matt noticed my tired little arm reaching as high as it could and called on me. And there I had a brief but monumental exchange with one of my musical heroes.

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Matt hung back to sign autographs and take photos (see below) without the slightest bit of annoyance – it’s like he wanted to do it, to indulge all the fans. Any music fan can attest to the fact that their appreciation for a musician is in their skills, because we never get to actually interact with the musicians themselves. But when the rare opportunity does present itself, they go from being some fantastical character behind the music, to a real life inspiration standing in front of you. The best thing that can come out of it, is a new found respect for the musician because not only are they extremely talented, but they’re people just like everyone else. That’s The National.

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Whether you’re a fan of The National or not, it doesn’t matter: the film is more about siblings and relationships than it is about music. It’s about understanding that although everyone’s different, even those closest to you, everyone wants the same thing: to find their place. The best thing we can do is help those around us get there any way we know how. After all, if it weren’t for my very own Charlie Brown, I wouldn’t have attended the show, met Matt Berninger and fallen even more in love with The National. So thanks for that.

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