Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck—the first officially sanctioned Kurt Cobain documentary, which makes its televised premiere on HBO on May 4. Courtney Love and his family opened Cobain’s private archives to the director, as well as providing candid interviews, alongside Krist Novoselic and Kurt’s former girlfriend Tracy Marander. Frances Bean Cobain sits in as executive producer.
Noisey: Recently you said you feel the next generation will make a Kurt/Nirvana doc that’s different from yours. How do you feel my generation’s perception of Kurt differs from yours? Being that he wasn’t alive when I listened to Nirvana…
Brett Morgen: Well, I think that it’s only a cultural difference, because we experienced Kurt at that time as someone who ushered in this sort of shifting cultural landscape. It’s like, Nirvana showed up, and then Bush and Reagan were swept out of the White House, then Kurt died and the Republicans took over. But the reason why he resonates with us is the same reason he resonates with your generation. Kurt will always provide comfort and be a sort of flagship for the freaks, the geeks, the disenfranchised, the beaten and down trodden, and the underdog.
Kurt was able to express his experience as a teenager through music, and articulate it lyrically better than anyone in the last 40 years of culture at least. Possibly ever. There will always be kids who feel alone. It helps that he’s absolutely gorgeous, and is never going to get a day older, and the music fucking kicked ass. He had an amazing ear for songs. You put that all together… I mean, one thing nobody would ever say about Kurt is that he was a sellout. He wasn’t. There’s a purity to him that is rare in pop music, because generally to make pop music involves a certain creative compromise. That wasn’t part of Kurt’s vocabulary.
So you think Kurt wasn’t chasing fame—that his intentions were more pure than that?
Kurt was really after acceptance. He sought it out initially through family, and then through the band, back when he started putting together bands. Then through Tracy, his girlfriend. And then with Courtney. I think he was ambitious and he also sought acceptance through fame, but he didn’t know what that meant. The bottom line is, if you don’t feel good about yourself, having the whole world tell you you’re beautiful and you’re amazing, doesn’t really make you feel better. In fact, it makes you feel worse. It’s like, Kurt’s deal with fame was that he didn’t know what that meant. In his mind, the ceiling for a band like Nirvana was 200,000 albums, like being Sonic Youth. So, he didn’t know—there was no scenario or plan to sell 600,000 albums in a week.
There are so many misconceptions about Kurt, which is especially clear after seeing the movie, what do you think is most misunderstood about him?
There are certain people who dismiss him just because they feel like we shouldn’t even be talking about him. In their minds, he only did three albums, and why are we still talking about him? Those who dismiss him as a whiny white guy who got all this fame and complained about it, it’s like, “Shut the fuck up, dude.” Hopefully when the audience sees the movie, and they arrive at the point where Kurt adopts some of those beats, they’ll greet it a little differently. See, what you get with the concept of the film is, it’s not a guy who’s just being abrasive to the media to be punk, or because he’s a whiny white guy, it’s that he’s an artist, and he doesn’t really want to explain his work. He’d rather people experience it. At the point where he’s selling 600,000 albums in a week, I don’t really think Kurt felt the need to sell any more. So the idea that he would schedule an interview to promote something like that—he doesn’t need any more promotion. It started to make music feel like a job for him. It wasn’t pure anymore. That’s just my sense.