‘Montage of Heck’ Destroys All the Myths About Kurt and Courtney — and Replaces Them With Empathy

The marriage of Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love has always looked to most people like one of two nightmares: To the adults of Middle America, they were just a tragic junky couple hurtling towards, and ultimately arriving at, disaster. Meanwhile, a substantial portion of Nirvana’s audience saw (and continues to see) Love as the social-climbing harpy who latched on to a delicate genius, plied him with a needle, sealed their union with a heroin-ravaged pregnancy, and then, maybe, had him killed.

But for a significant subset of girls growing up in the years following Cobain’s suicide in 1994 — including me — they represented a very specific romantic ideal: a perfect, poetic love that somehow failed to save its tortured hero. We daydreamed over Sassy‘s now-iconic photo spread of the couple, savored every word of Kurt’s defenses of Courtney in the press and onstage, and appreciated what his fondness for wearing dresses might imply about the fluidity of gender roles within their relationship. Reading his suicide note, we chose to focus less on his desertion of his family (or what some have suggested was Cobain’s inescapable unhappiness with Love) than on his description of her as his “goddess of a wife who sweats ambition and empathy.”

Though adolescent obsessions have a way of leaving their vague yet visceral residue on our adult brains, I’m now well aware that whatever went on between Kurt and Courtney was far more complex than any of the above misunderstandings of it. Biographies and interviews and documentaries form a composite image of a marriage that had no shortage of love in it, along with plenty of heroin- and fame-induced “us against the world” codependence, mixed with the same boring, quotidian problems that plague most relationships. But no other single document has done more to illuminate their dynamic than Brett Morgen’s Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, which airs Monday on HBO after a series of festival dates and a limited theatrical run.

Everything both the Courtney haters and the Love-Cobain fantasists miss comes through, with unnerving but necessary ambivalence, in the footage Morgen assembled from Love’s own archives. Regardless of which half of the couple bore more responsibility for their shared heroin addiction — Love strongly implies that it wasn’t her — it clearly ravaged both of them. In home movies, even the ones where they’re playing with baby (and now Montage of Heck co-producer) Frances Bean Cobain, they’re constantly slumped over, speaking in slow, labored, opiated monotone. Cobain in particular often looks like he’s about to nod out. At the same time, their love for each other and the delight they take in their daughter feels as genuine as any familial affection I’ve ever seen captured on film.

The clip that hit me the hardest shows Kurt and Courtney in the bathroom together. Each is wrapped in a towel, and they’re arguing flirtatiously about the women who would pursue Cobain and “diss” Love on tour. “You can’t trust men in general, even if they’re ‘new men,’ and they’re you. Even if they’re like you. You still can’t trust them,” Love says. “I understand what you’re trying to say,” Cobain jokingly grumbles, then exclaims, “I’m a millionaire, and I’m a man for the ’90s! I’m Ward Cleaver.” He muses that she and Roseanne Barr are the two most hated women in America. Soon after, the conversation shifts, and they’re rejoicing over the fact that he’s managed to grow a mustache and making fun of the people he grew up with in Aberdeen, and she’s flashing her breasts. It’s the playful, quick nature of their banter that makes it sting, how they speak in the kind of comfortable shorthand, and share the kind of inside jokes, that any two people who know each other intimately develop.

One bit of the Cobain legend that Montage of Heck never disputes, probably because it’s the truth, is his fragility. Everyone Morgen interviews, from an old girlfriend to Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic to Cobain’s family, seems aware of it — and that knowledge means they partially blame themselves for his death, or just believe they could have done more to stop it. Aside from what we’ve known for years about Cobain’s mysterious stomach ailment and obsession with empathy as both a word and a concept, the film focuses especially on his lifelong aversion to shame, one that seemed to grow out of early experiences at school and with family.

Morgen’s style, which resists the crutch of narration, dictates that he doesn’t impose on us his own interpretation of Love’s role in this psychodrama. In one sense, her audacity seems to both electrify and comfort Cobain, a by-all-accounts shy man who was constantly called on to speak. But his hypersensitivity to shame also appears to have meant that the sexism directed at Love, and the sensationalism surrounding her pregnancy, hit him even harder than it would most husbands. When she speaks openly about an instance in which she nearly cheated on him — one that she says led to Cobain’s March 1994 overdose in Rome, which incited a media circus — the interview carries the full weight of guilt both earned and unearned.

I’m not naive enough to suppose that Montage of Heck will bring any anti-Love extremists around, that her candor and ambivalence and authenticity (in both current and archival footage) will finally convince them that whatever they’re reading in hysterical corners of the Internet is libel. But it should. Just as it complicates all the major myths surrounding her marriage to Cobain, the documentary also captures her well-worn perspective on it all these years later — a brittle mirror that long ago fractured into slivers of grief, anger, loneliness, love, blame, and pure hauntedness.

As a young teenager, the difference between the anguish I felt for Courtney after Kurt’s death and the massive outpouring of anger directed at her as she mourned taught me more about misogyny than anything else I only experienced secondhand. Of the many films that have been made about Kurt Cobain, documentary and fiction, Morgen’s is the best because what it leaves us with is the one thing that most defined his life: empathy.