There has always been something accidental about Kurt Cobain’s legacy. His remains a myth forged out of an undeniable gift, cultural happenstance, and a “My Generation” style burnt out limelight. Had he not died by his own hand in 1994, the victim of so much fame and so much pain, he’d probably be a laid back Henry Rollins, regaling young emos with his cynical tales of antisocial grunge glory. But because he came and captured a moment, because he stood for something at the end of an era that had wallowed in superficial excess and carte blanche selfishness, he’s now considered a God. It’s a tag he’d never want to wear, though he gladly let you pay him for the privilege.
The internal yin and yang that drove this isolated Pacific Northwest child to the heights of rock stardom, and the depths of personal despair, are given a remarkable airing in AJ Schnack’s tone poem to one man’s talent, Kurt Cobain About a Son (released this past February on DVD by Shout! Factory). Consisting of conversations recorded with the late musician by author Michael Azerrad, we get that clichéd intimate portrait of a man coming to terms with his suddenly show biz past. Delving deep into areas that have now become iconography, while skimming over elements (drugs, his mental problems) that fail to serve his sense of place, we wind up with something akin to an unintentional elegy. On the one hand, it is clear that Cobain enjoyed most of his life. Yet there are so many fatalistic pronouncements and defeatist confessions that his suicide now seems like a forgone conclusion.
For the most part, Cobain’s childhood memories are soaked in a sense of measured relevance. He professes his ‘punkdom’ repeatedly, reinforcing the archetype with tales of homelessness, parental disassociation, and chucking rocks at cops. The slacker aesthetic is also championed, as idleness and a hatred of work are paired with poverty and a desire to succeed. There is very little about music here. While there are namechecks to Queen (and News of the World) as well as fabled influences like The Vaselines and Butthole Surfers, Cobain is very closed about his own muse. We don’t even realize he is talking about Nirvana until he specifically mentions the recording of Bleach. There are riffs on catering corporate interest, and a plan to garner favor by including little prizes with each unsolicited demo tape, but the songwriting process is barely mentioned.
Of course, one has to put these conversations into context. Cobain would die almost a year from the last of these late night Q&As, and he was riding a wave of tabloid fervor over his tumultuous marriage to Courtney Love. One of the most revelatory moments of the entire film comes when said wife is mentioned. Though it’s clear that Cobain adored his spouse and child, he calls Love one of the most prophetic names in the annals of flame out rock stardom - Nancy Spungen. While it may be Freudian, it’s also the kind of fuel bound to fan a hundred angry messageboard screeds. The John and Yoko element of their coupling is a surface barely scratched, and when pressed about their partnership, Cobain gives an odd, detached answer. He’d already quit Courtney several times - just like his band.
The rest of Nirvana gets equally light airplay. Krist Novoselic comes across as the kind of agent provocateur Cobain was desperate to find. Grohl is the roommate who pressed the royalties issue later on. Others who fell in and out of the band are left out of the mix, and the entire tone of the material is businesslike and perfunctory. It’s odd to hear this man so centered on money. The parable talks of a wounded butterfly who tried to press art out of the MTV dervish of marketing and merchandising. But in About a Son, he’s frank about his financial focus. While offered under the guise of taking care of his then infant daughter Frances Bean, there’s clearly a cutthroat approach to the music industry in the man’s attitude. It’s something that goes hand in hand with all the frontloaded foreboding.
In fact, if Cobain were not already dead, one would picture him less than a step away from such a self-inflicted end. The notorious issues with his back and stomach are touched on, each one dissipating into a “wanting to kill myself” diagnosis. Heroin, when broached, also warrants a similar response. Clearly, Cobain was a man afflicted with demons, but he also appears in harmony with such horrors, chalking it up to his personality and his parenting. One of the things About a Son lacks (and it’s something the DVD avoids as well) is a clear explanation of such facets. Obviously on his guard most of the time, we have to infer a great many things from the man’s hints and circular conclusions. But that’s also the beauty of this mesmerizing document. It’s rare that we get to hear a famous face, in his own words, try and explain his celebrity.
It’s this very dissection that also helps this movie soar. Instead of relying on backseat psychologist or post-modern head shrinking, Azzerad and Schnack let the subject study himself. The lack of another presence, the use of day to day visuals to support the foundation, allows the many meanings in Cobain’s riffs to resonate. Our director does imply a few feelings (he admits as much on the scene specific audio commentary included on the disc) and when the images of the man finally appear at the end, the strategy seems more than sound. We are moved by the comparison between the frail, elfish human onscreen and the voice from Heaven we’ve heard for 90 minutes. It’s a juxtaposition that encapsulates everything that makes Cobain’s myth so unexpected. His songs may say it all (rights issues keep them out here, sadly), but there was much more on his mind than chorus and verse. About a Son proves that in sad, salutary spades.