Director Brett Morgen looked genuinely surprised when Frances Bean Cobain asked to take the stage while he was introducing his new HBO documentary, “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck,” about the Nirvana frontman. With ink-black hair and her father’s piercing blue eyes, Cobain uncannily resembled the screen-sized image of the late musician that loomed over fans waiting for the L.A. premiere at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood.
“The reason I wanted to come here,” said Cobain, an executive producer on the film, was that “after seeing it, I thought I could only watch it once. But the film that [Morgen] made — I didn’t know Kurt, but he would be exceptionally proud of it. It touches some dark subjects, but it provides a basic understanding of who he was as a human, and that’s been lost.”
For the hundreds of fans and supporters in the crowd, there was a palpable little shock when she called her father by his first name. Considering that Frances Cobain wasn’t even 2 at the time of her father’s suicide, it’s perhaps no surprise that to her he’s more an idea than someone she could have known.
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But it underscored the purpose of Morgen’s film. More than 20 years after his death, Kurt Cobain remains unknowable. On Tuesday night, Morgen hoped “Montage of Heck” would add something new and humane to a story told so many times as one of celebrity self-destruction or the toll of stardom on a sensitive, vulnerable artist.
As a documentary director, he said, “there’s no greater gift than trust and respect, and this is one of the greatest gifts ever bestowed upon me.”
Morgen had unprecedented access to Cobain archival material -- home movies, early demo recordings, reams of notebooks and art and other ephemera -- that form the heart of “Montage of Heck.” That’s the material -- more so than scenes of Nirvana’s Reading Festival triumph, vintage MTV clips anointing them generation-defining status or Cobain’s Rome coma that in hindsight seemed to foreshadow his death -- that left the Egyptian Theatre spellbound.
As much as Cobain could ever not be performing, this footage caught him in those in-between spaces when he was just a person.
On Tuesday, fans saw one of music’s most intensely beloved figures as a sweet towheaded child, introducing his own name with no idea how many people would know it in a few years. They saw a rejected teenager learn his first taste of sexual and social shame that would darken the corners of an already troubled mind. They watched a ferociously intelligent and self-aware man dissect his own myths while shaving in a bathroom mirror, and help his daughter get a haircut while still clearly on the tail end of a heroin binge.
“Montage” did the hardest thing a documentary can do -- not just tell a story but collapse the time and distance between subject and audience. As fans filed out of the theater to an after-party at the nearby bar Sadie, little photographic shrines to Kurt lined the entryway. It’s not that it was hard to celebrate a new achievement in music documentaries. It’s that Kurt Cobain was finally seen as a person (like his daughter said, just “Kurt”) in a way that few in the audience were prepared for.
“That was weird,” one fan said, sitting on the back bar at Sadie. “That was really uncomfortable.” It was, but it always is when, for the first time, you truly see someone you thought you knew.
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