Documentary Kurt Cobain About a Son doesn’t contain any of the elements a viewer might reasonably expect from a documentary about Cobain.
The subject is never properly introduced or mentioned by name until the end. Footage and even photos of him are likewise mostly withheld until the very end. No one close to him, nor any experts or commentators who might provide any part of his story or its context, are called upon to opine.
The story of Cobain’s band Nirvana, i.e. the reason he’s famous and the fodder for projects like this at all, is glossed over. In fact, none of their music is played throughout the film’s 96 minutes, the soundtrack consisting instead of some of Cobain’s favorite bands and influences—Young Marble Giants, Queen, Creedance Clearwater Revival, Scratch Acid, The Butthole Surfers, and others—with the closest thing to a Nirvana song being David Bowie’s “The Man That Sold the World,” which Cobain and his bandmates covered in their MTV Unplugged performance.
There may be real world reasons for these conspicuous omissions—perhaps no one would talk to director A.J. Schnack, perhaps the rights for the use of the Nirvana catalogue were off-limits—reasons I don’t know, and don’t really care about. Whatever lead Schnack to make some of the unusual creative choices he made in constructing the film, the end product suggests this approach was ultimately the best one. In fact, when the film ends with a photo or two of Cobain’s face, and a pointless post-script telling us that Cobain committed suicide just a year after the end of the interviews, it seems like a mistake to include them at all.
If nothing one would expect in a Cobain documentary is present, what is? Schnack has access to over 25 hours of audio interviews that journalist Azerrad conducted one-on-one with Cobain for his 1993 book Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana.
We hear Cobain’s voice essentially telling us his own side of his own story throughout the film—and precious little else. The sound quality varies from story to story and anecdote to anecdote, and you can hear Cobain talking to Azerrad in person and occasionally over the phone, while eating, drinking or smoking, the questions almost always cut out, save for a place or two. The result can be a bit creepy, but the cumulative effect isn’t simply that of listening to an interview with a dead man so much as talking to one.
The visuals are almost completely Cobain-free, with only black and white photos of him from afar, his face obscured by his hair, ever showing up before the conclusion. Instead Schnack pairs Cobain’s words with beautiful scenes of the Washington landscape, capturing the places Cobain’s life unfolded in—Aberdeen, Olympia, Seattle—and composing a dreamy, sometimes eerie image narrative of strangers and establishing shots.
The result is a story that takes place almost entirely in your imagination, something unusual in a medium as visual as film.
The director cannily realizes that his audience already knows so much of the story of Cobain and Nirvana that there’s little point in retelling it, and instead focuses on the parts that haven’t been intoned by Kurt Loder or reported in tabloids, mostly regarding Cobain’s childhood and what drove him to seek rockstardom, a desire he apparently pursued and rejected with equal vigor, wanting to become famous mostly to prove to himself that he could.
Those looking for any psychological insight might be somewhat disappointed, as Cobain repeatedly downplays any assignation of labels like genius: his sound was born of a desire to mix Black Sabbath and the Beatles, and if Nirvana got so much attention for their angsty worldview, it wasn’t that they were saying anything in particular, just that they had more hooks than some of their peers.
Likewise, his life story isn’t all that unique, he contends—he was driven by a desire for a family he never really had, his childhood heavily informed by his parents’ divorce. His story is the same as thousands—if not millions—of others.
“It’s nothing amazing or anything new,” Cobain tells Azerrad when asked if his is a sad story. “I’m a product of a spoiled generation…I’m glad I could share it. It’s not anymore my story than anybody else’s.”
The film is littered with portentous foreshadowing about the end of Cobain’s life, when he discusses his chronic stomach pains, his scoliosis and his fears of someday developing schizophrenia, repeatedly talking about how he wanted to kill himself or would blow his head off someday.
There are, however, added ironies, like his lamenting the fact that his father just gave up on him, and that he would never give up on his own daughter, or his swearing that he had “the rest of his life” to get back at journalists hounding him and Courtney Love about their drug usage and parenting skills.
The film’s central tragedy may be that while a lot of what Cobain said does sound like warnings from this side of his 1994 suicide, he truly sounded like a man living a happy ending at the end of the film. While he was tiring of Nirvana and his bandmates, he took great joy in jamming with his wife, and she and their daughter provided him with the family unit whose absence seemed to drive so much of his negative feelings. A millionaire rockstar, he proved to himself and the world that he could be a rockstar if he wanted to, and could have then chosen to stop being one.
As to why he chose the method of stopping he ultimately did, the film offers no answers. Probably because there aren’t any.
Kurt Cobain About A Son will be released on DVD today, Tuesday, February 19