Environment is so key to Kurt Cobain’s life, says A.J. Schnack, director of Kurt Cobain: About a Son, during the selected scene commentary. This observation is essential to understanding the focus of Schnack’s direction. That his documentary is just as much about atmosphere and capturing a specific time and place as it is about Cobain is the most distinguishing aspect of the entire production.
Using Michael Azerrad’s interviews of Cobain for his book Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana, Schnack uses landscapes, cityscapes, portraits — and other real locations from Cobain’s years in Aberdeen, Olympia, and Seattle — and even some animation to illustrate and provide context for Cobain’s recollections. As the documentary is divided into three chapters related to the three cities he lived in, we are given a clear picture of just how important these places were in Cobain’s life.
Azerrad’s interviews with Cobain were conducted between December 1992 and March 1993. As Cobain committed suicide one year after the last of the interviews were recorded, they offer particular insight into Cobain’s state of mind at the time. He makes numerous contradictory statements regarding his differing attitudes when it comes to relating to people; and seems to vacillate between real nostalgia for his childhood and the early days of the band, as well as bitterness and anger for the same period.
His time in Aberdeen is marked by a strained relationship with his father and the emotional fallout from his parent’s divorce. Cobain took refuge in his art and he says it was considered a given that he would continue on to art school. Immersing himself in hours of guitar practice and discovering punk music, he instead decides to start a band and pursue music full-time.
As he makes his move to Olympia, he is surrounded for the first time by culture in the form of small, independent bookstores, coffeehouses, music shops, and a community of aspiring artists. In spite of being surrounded by such an open and welcoming community, Cobain speaks of his continued seclusion and his limited contact with people in the Olympia cultural scene.
Cobain’s move to Seattle provides a subject shift in the interviews that focus on issues of fame and privacy. He talks about his relationship with Courtney Love and the ways in which they are perceived by the public, particularly as parents. There is even a snippet of Love interrupting the interview to ask Cobain to bring up a bottle of Similac for the baby. These moments provide an authenticity and a realness that would be impossible to achieve in a straightforward production.
Also included are Cobain’s thoughts on Nirvana, songwriting credit disputes, and his continued desire to quit the band. The fact that the interviews were initially intended to be used for the writing of a book and not necessarily to be heard (or watched), puts the material in the unique position of taking on new meanings and further interpretation.
Schnack makes a very specific and ultimately highly successful choice when it comes to the music used in the documentary. While it is probably expected that Cobain’s music with Nirvana would be the main soundtrack, Schnack instead decides to use the music of artists of the period, particularly those who were Cobain’s favorites. The Young Marble Giants, Queen, R.E.M., and Mudhoney are just a few of the bands included.
As for the original score, Steve Fisk and Benjamin Gibbard provide an atmospheric, almost dreamlike score to the production. These two choices are integral to the success of the documentary as they offer further insight into Cobain’s influences and are especially important in creating a fuller picture of the time period.
Kurt Cobain: About a Son is a unique find for such a saturated and often exploited subject matter. Schnack has gone to great lengths to humanize Cobain and offer more than the usual icon worship usually attributed to such a tragic figure. Both Azerrad and Schnack are intent in their attempts to truly understand Cobain and the places that helped to form him, and these attempts are the key to the overall tone of openness and authenticity, setting it apart from the standard rock icon documentary.
The extras include The Voices Behind About a Son, a featurette focusing on interviews with Azerrad, Schnack, Charles Peterson, and Steve Fisk, among others; selected scene commentary by A.J. Schnack that offers insight into location choices, as well as the use of portraits throughout the documentary; and On Location: Scouting Video to Scene Comparison, a side-by-side contrasting of various locations used in the documentary. The scenes are shown in fairly quick cuts with the score playing throughout, creating an almost music video-like presentation.