On Sept. 10, 1991, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” hit the airwaves, forever changing pop, punk, rap, and rock while the cultural world embraced, assimilated, and commoditized “Teen Spirit.” If record sales and critical acclaim have anything to say, then the message was clear: “Teen Spirit” was the revolutionary anthem the world had been waiting for.

But did Nirvana frontman and songwriter Kurt Cobain know that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was going to be a game-changer, or was he simply venting teenage angst? This intersection of the public and private is at the heart of all works of art, but for Cobain, that intersection proved to be a blessing and a curse.

Documentarian Brett Morgen explores this territory, familiar and unfamiliar alike, in the stunning pastiche, Cobain: Montage of Heck, a movie eight years in the making—two years of production and six years of legal wrangling—fully authorized by wife Courtney Love and daughter Frances Bean Cobain. Their cooperation is crucial to the success of Montage of Heck as Morgen searches for, and finds, a staggering amount of honesty and personality in the never-before-seen or heard images and sounds from one of the most prolific artists of the late-20th century.

Focusing mainly on Cobain’s teenage years and drawing on a wealth of Cobain-produced sound collages, spoken word recordings, and home movies—and incorporating archival footage and animation inspired by doodles from Cobain’s diaries—Morgen crafts a surprising and engrossing portrait of the artist as a young man. Much like James Joyce’s hero and alter ego, Stephen Dedalus, Cobain sought to “forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race” long before he met bandmates, Dave Grohl or Krist Novoselic.

By depicting Cobain’s day-to-day activities and musings, Montage of Heck shows that Nirvana’s success was not happenstance. Cobain had high hopes for his art, and from the darkest recesses of his mind, Cobain produced a mountain of work. Morgen culls from these archives an image of a man, deeply disturbed but clearly motivated toward fame and fortune via artistic expression.

What drove this motivation was also what connected Cobain with his public: the painful confessions of rejection, humiliation, and shame. While Cobain exercised his personal demons, he managed to tap into something universal. His personal struggle became public, and that image was co-opted by the “over-bored and self-assured” masses.

But public success rarely equals private relationships, and Morgen never stoops to lionize or glorify Cobain and his choices—some are despicable, others are understandable. Instead, Morgen shows that while Cobain’s words may have connected with millions of strangers around the world, his actions held those closest to him at arm’s length. A choice that ultimately cost Cobain and his loved ones dearly. Yet, three decades on, the life and works of Kurt Cobain are still being discussed, consumed, and processed. Montage of Heck doesn’t just contribute to that conversation; it elevates it to a whole new level.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Cobain: Montage of Heck (2015)
Written and directed by Brett Morgen
Produced by Danielle Renfrew Behrens, Brett Morgen
HBO Documentary Films, Rated TV-MA, Running time 132 minutes, Premiered Jan. 24, 2015 at the Sundance Film Festival

The above review first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 23, No. 4, “They hung him on a cross.”