Cobain, Winehouse and Joplin documentaries have more in common than Oscar hopes

Kurt Cobain with Frances Bean

“Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” features the Nirvana frontman with his daughter, Frances Bean, an executive producer on the film. He died at 27 in 1994.

(The End of Music / HBO)

From “Buena Vista Social Club” to “20 Feet From Stardom,” music-themed documentaries have often figured into award-contender shortlists, and this year has been no exception.

Brett Morgen’s “Cobain: Montage of Heck” and Asif Kapadia’s “Amy,” about troubled chanteuse Amy Winehouse, have earned near-rhapsodic reviews and have been credited with breathing fresh life into the frequently hagiographic format.

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But the two films, along with “Janis: Little Girl Blue,” Amy Berg’s upcoming Janis Joplin portrait, turn out to share more in common than shining revealing spotlights on their iconic subjects.


None of the three artists lived to celebrate a 28th birthday.

Also claiming Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix as members, the 27 Club has cast an ominous shadow over an industry known for catapulting promising young talent into stratospheric levels of media frenzy before there’s any sort of practical coping mechanism in place.

“I’m really wary about even talking about that number because I don’t like to celebrate it,” says “Amy” director Kapadia, whose subject died in 2011 of acute alcohol poisoning. “If you make too much of a point of it, people who have a cloud over them start thinking about that and it becomes self-perpetuating. And I’ve got a terrible feeling that in Amy’s case, a little bit of that was in there as well. She would worry that, ‘If they didn’t make it to 28, maybe I can’t.’”


For Joplin, whose 1970 heroin overdose came less than a month after Hendrix’s death, there wasn’t the same ominous association with that number.

“These musicians coming up in the ‘70s didn’t have Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse to draw from,” says Berg, who started working on the film in 2007. “At that time they were the trendsetters. And as a woman, she was the only one who was doing what she was doing. It’s a very lonely existence when you think about it.”

From his vantage point, Cobain screen biographer Morgen contends there may be a logical explanation for that ill-fated age.

“All these artists get all this fame and fortune when they’re 24 years old and a lot of them have been using drugs from an early age,” Morgen says. (Cobain’s death was attributed to a self-inflicted shotgun wound to the head.)

“They haven’t fully developed necessarily. They’re still young and they’re suddenly given everything, all the excess, and nobody’s telling them, ‘No.’ So if we go, why is it 27 and not 29, I think you need to look at the age they all became successful.”

Although Joplin seems to struggle with self-doubt throughout much of the film, performing in front of audiences held an attraction that wasn’t shared by Winehouse and Cobain.

“I do think she had a different relationship with fame than Amy and Kurt,” contends Berg. “I think she embraced it more. If you were to compare Janis and Amy, because they’re both women, they had such a different relationship with their audience. I think Janis just needed it. It filled all these childhood needs for love, which they say is as addictive as heroin.”

Janis Joplin
Janis Joplin is the subject of Amy Berg’s “Janis: Little Girl Blue.”
(Jan Persson / Redferns / Getty Images)

When he ventured into a storage facility crammed with Cobain’s artwork, audio recordings and journals, which formed the basis of “Montage of Heck,” Morgen subsequently realized that it was actually a series of events that led to that tragic moment.

Those materials hinted at issues of abandonment and shame going back to Cobain’s childhood — an inability to deal with extreme feelings of ridicule and humiliation resulted in a suicide attempt at age 15.

As “Amy” reveals, in addition to her long-term drinking, Winehouse had also suffered from extreme depression and bulimia from a very young age.

While she had found songwriting to be a rewarding outlet for dealing with those bouts of depression, living one’s life in a fishbowl was never something she sought out.

Amy Winehouse

Amy Winehouse in a scene from the documentary “Amy.” The R&B singer died in 2011 at age 27, the same age as several of pop music’s biggest stars.

(A24 Films via AP)

“It’s a pretty sad story for a young girl to have to experience all of that in public,” says Kapadia. “You get a quarter of a million pounds at 16 [for a recording contract], why do you think that’s going to work out well?”

Kapadia, who had previously directed the award-winning “Senna,” about the late Brazilian Formula One competitor, hopes his portrait of a troubled, ordinary girl will serve as a cautionary tale, so that when it happens to the next person, their team won’t think twice before pulling them out of the limelight.

For his part, Morgen, who received an Oscar nomination for the 1999 boxing documentary “On the Ropes,” had one goal in mind while he was making the film: Providing closure for Cobain’s daughter, Frances Bean.


“Honestly, at the end of the day, if everybody in the world hated the film except for Frances, it would have been worthwhile,” says Morgen.

Frances Cobain, a recently married 23-year-old visual artist, was not yet 2 when her father died. She served as an executive producer on the film, and was instrumental in allowing Morgen access to all that material.

“She was basically the first person I showed the film to,” Morgen says. “After she watched it, she said, ‘Thank you for giving me 2 1/2 hours with my father I never thought I’d have.”

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