Collage of chats with Cobain
A dozen years after his death by suicide, Kurt Cobain remains a fascinating figure. Filmmaker AJ Schnack is the latest to weigh in with the collage-like nonfiction work “Kurt Cobain About a Son.” In no way an introduction to Cobain or the definitive word on the iconoclastic artist, the film will likely appeal to the type of completist who covets alternative takes of previously released songs or collections of obscure B-sides.
Culled from 25 hours of audio interviews with Cobain conducted in 1993 by journalist Michael Azerrad for his book “Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana,” Schnack matches the self-reflective, often contradictory words of the late musician to vibrant, 35-millimeter images created by director of photography Wyatt Troll and stark black-and-white performance stills by photographer Charles Peterson.
Schnack structures the conversations around three cities in Washington state where Cobain lived -- Aberdeen, Olympia, Seattle -- forming a kind of stream-of-consciousness biography. There’s nothing particularly revelatory about the interviews recorded over a two-month span, but there’s an intimate quality that gives the impression you’re listening to a private conversation, which, in a sense, you are.
What is most compelling is hearing the various stances Cobain takes in talking about himself. Someone who always seemed uncomfortable in his own skin, he spent most of his youth searching for an authentic self, and the conversations with Azerrad present a man tired of that struggle, yet fervently on guard about the way he is perceived. Mellow when reminiscing about childhood -- the good and the bad (mostly bad) -- he becomes progressively more agitated and assertive as the discussion moves toward the Nirvana years and his relationship with the press, especially pertaining to his drug use and marriage to Courtney Love.
Troll’s brightly colored environmental shots present contemporary versions of Cobain’s haunts in the three cities. The film often feels like a ghost story narrated by the ghost himself and works best when it is visually more impressionistic. Images of empty rooms and landscapes are far more evocative than the Cobain stand-ins the filmmakers occasionally deploy. The Aberdeen sequence in particular projects a “Twin Peaks”-like eeriness with the natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest and the workaday presence of lumber trucks and diners undercut by Cobain’s recollections of domestic angst.
Schnack makes an effective choice to keep Cobain largely off-screen. Even in the still photographs by Peterson, Cobain’s face is mostly obscured by his long, straggly hair forcing the viewer to focus more intently on his voice.
The film’s soundtrack is Nirvana-free, instead focusing on artists Cobain listened to growing up (Queen, Iggy Pop, David Bowie) and his contemporaries (Mudhoney, the Breeders), along with an atmospheric original score by producer Steve Fisk and Death Cab for Cutie’s Benjamin Gibbard.
“Kurt Cobain About a Son.” MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes. At Landmark’s Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A. (310) 281-8223.
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