Audio tracks help paint the portrait

Special to The Times

Can a documentary filmmaker paint a portrait of a rock star without using his subject’s image or songs? Avoiding every convention of the form -- including such basics as performance footage -- AJ Schnack has done just that in “Kurt Cobain: About a Son,” coming to DVD on Tuesday, the day before the late Nirvana frontman would have turned 41. In the process, he’s created a work of startling intimacy.

Nobody speaks in the film but Cobain himself. There’s not an intermediary talking head in sight, no one interpreting Cobain’s art and life or sharing anecdotes about him. His disembodied voice-over reflections are drawn from 25-plus hours of interviews that Michael Azerrad conducted for his 1993 book, “Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana.” (Azerrad had resisted other offers concerning the audiotapes.)

Cobain was no shrinking violet when it came to the press, but even so, these opened vaults prove a true gift to fans. With the amplified self-consciousness and candor that mark the best interviews, he exhibits the same mix of sarcasm and sincerity that he says he strove for in his lyrics. His contradictions fascinate: With equal fervor he can declare both that “we don’t deserve to have a book written about us” and “people don’t deserve to know [about my life].”

Schnack builds his narrative impressionistically, evoking a powerful sense of place. Still photographs, by grunge chronicler Charles Peterson, and new footage trace Cobain’s odyssey from lumber-centric Aberdeen, Washington, to boho-provincial Olympia to cutting-edge cosmopolitan Seattle.

Schnack was drawn to Peterson’s photographs because they’re often “more about movement and light than portraiture.” Taking a similar tack, he constructs an indelible biographical document that’s as personal as it is oblique. Providing counterpoint to the landscapes and cityscapes is a score by Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard and Nirvana producer Steve Fisk, and evocative tracks by Cobain’s influences -- among them David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Queen, the Melvins, Bad Brains, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Leadbelly.


The film’s visceral charge and poignancy rest upon its pairing of presence and absence. Cobain is unseen but fully felt -- much like any important artist who dies young. The conversations excerpted in the film took place in late 1992 and early 1993, at the height of Nirvana’s post-"Nevermind” fame. For Cobain, who distrusted stardom but didn’t want to settle for the fringe, the struggle wasn’t over. But he could still remember the thrill of Nirvana’s first show: “We had the run of the entire living room.”