Kurt Loder Movie Reviews

Movie Reviews: Nirvana Roars Again in Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck

Also: MST3K vets lower the boom on The Room.

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Kurt Cobain
HBO

How many people can there be, Nirvana fans or not, who don't know at least a part of the Kurt Cobain story by now? The troubled kid, the killer band, the fame, the ambivalence, the shotgun, the end? Brett Morgen's Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck tells this tale one more time, but in a sleek new way, without the usual documentary signposts. Drummer Dave Grohl simply appears on the scene, unheralded by date or name. Pat Smear arrives. Courtney Love barrels in. Scribbled on a note we see only a phone number for Geffen Records, which would become the band's big-time home. A resolute impressionism prevails.

What's really new about this powerful film, assembled over the course of eight years, is the way that it conjures Cobain's full presence—his conflicting dreams and resentments, loves and fears. He seems to stand (and leap and fall and crawl) before us, and it's a mesmerizing sight.

Director Brett Morgen (The Kid Stays in the Picture) says that Love gave him unhampered access to a trove of previously unseen home movies, handwritten journals, drawings, voice recordings and work tapes (one of them a hallucinatory sound-collage that Cobain titled "Montage of Heck"). There's grainy, exciting footage of early rehearsals, sound checks and concerts, and the music comes roaring off the screen. Morgen also made the risky decision to illustrate some of the audio material with animated sequences (most strikingly over Cobain's recounting of an early suicide attempt). These passages, created by artists Hisko Hulsing and Stefan Nadelman, have a supple graphic-novel expertise that meshes beautifully with the stories we're hearing. They're a small triumph in themselves.

The course of Cobain's short life was famously prefigured by his unhappy childhood. We see him as a baby in the late 1960s, then as a little kid banging on drums and toy pianos, and soon discovering the joys of punk rock and pot (the beginning of his self-medication for the gastric pain that plagued him throughout his life). At the age of nine he is unmoored by his parents' divorce and subsequent rejection of their son (they farmed him out to relatives). This dismissal planted a seed of anger in Cobain that sprouted intermittently throughout his life. "If he ever felt humiliated," says bassist Krist Novoselic, now balding and contemplative, "then you'd see the rage come out." (Unfortunately missing from the film is commentary by Grohl, whose schedule precluded his sitting for an interview until after the picture was locked—an unfortunate muffed connection that could be rectified on a future DVD.)

At home with Love and their baby daughter, Frances Bean (one of the film's producers), Cobain is a different man, doting and affectionate even when he appears to be on the verge of a heroin nod ("I'm not on drugs, I'm tired," he insists). And Love, often reviled as "the most hated woman in America" (as she acknowledges at one point), comes across as an abrasive but entertaining eccentric. She isn't whitewashed, though, even by herself. In one latter-day interview, she admits a passing temptation to cheat on the adoring Cobain (she didn't), and says that he sensed it: "He took 66 Rohypnols and went into a coma."

Morgen is admirably generous in allotting space for the music Cobain made with Nirvana, allowing much of it to play out at length. There's a lot of it, too, ranging from familiar tracks ("Lithium," "Smells Like Teen Spirit," selections from the famous MTV Unplugged performance, taped very near the end), to fascinating obscurities like Cobain's solo home recording of the Beatles' "And I Love Her." The music still resounds, undimmed by age—it has lost none of its bite and its furious impact. Unlike its bedeviled creator, it's very much alive.

(Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck opens in some theaters this weekend. It debuts on HBO on May 4.)

The Room
The Room

The Room

In the pantheon of shitty movies, Tommy Wiseau's The Room has risen to preeminence. The picture is an unforgettable collision of demented ambition and utter incompetence, and 12 years after its initial release, it now sustains a cult that gathers at midnight screenings to jeer and howl at the picture's seamless absurdity.

The Room would have been a perfect object of derision on Mystery Science Theater 3000. Unfortunately, that beloved Z-movie cable series went off the air in 1999, four years before Wiseau's masterwork lurched onto the scene. But three members of the MST3K crew—Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett—still do business as a company called RiffTrax, selling pre-recorded commentaries to be played in tandem with bad movies that you have to rent yourself. And last week, as part of the Tribeca Film Festival in New York, they took over a downtown theatre for a live skewering of The Room that was entirely MST-worthy. On May 6, they'll be repeating this demolition and beaming it out to 650 theatres around the country. This is worth noting.

A key element of the truly bad movie is a complete ignorance of its manifest awfulness. Pictures like Sharknado and Zombeavers are bad, it's true, but intentionally so, which kills the fun—the on-the-nose titles eliminate the need to actually see the films. On the other hand, an unintentionally dreadful movie like Manos: The Hands of Fate—a MST3K classic—can only be endured in conjunction with rude robot wisecracks. Seen in unenhanced form, it's excruciatingly dull.

What puts The Room in a class of its own is its overabundant idiocy. While you're still gasping at one of the film's moronic lines or vagrant plot knots, another one rises up to smack you in the head. The acting is deplorable, the story barely worthy of the name, the impoverished sets a celebration of what-the-hell. Wiseau, a strange-looking man who wrote, directed and produced this thing, gives himself a couple of sex scenes that provoke real horror. (Contemplating his lumpy, shirtless torso, one of the MST lads wondered if it was made out of Madonna's arms.)

The Room can be enjoyed, after a fashion, on its own. But Nelson, Murphy, and Corbett bring it down to a jaw-dropping new level. Tickets for their May 6 evisceration can be purchased at the RiffTrax Website.

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32 responses to “Movie Reviews: Nirvana Roars Again in Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck

  1. Perhaps I’ll make myself more unpopular here, but I always thought the band Nirvana was vastly overrated.

    1. Apparently ol’ Kurt would have agreed with you.

    2. If Loder likes it – it’s overrated.

    3. Nah, you’re entirely right.

    4. Musically speaking they were extremely overrated. They were basically just stripped down punk infused with angsty almost emo-ish (before emo was a thing) lyrics. But they got lucky in that they came along when people were getting sick of hair metal and a lot of angsty teen-aged gen X-ers and early millenials were looking for something more “authentic,” whatever that means, than Motley Crue and Poison and all those other hair bands. Timing played a more important role in their success than actual talent.

      1. ^ This. If you think of them as a normal band, they suck. If you think of them as Top 40, they were OK compared to the other Top 40 at the time.

      2. It was partially “right place at the right time.” They also had the luck that they didn’t peak as a band before going to a major label like Husker Du or somebody did, that they were more lyrically accessible to young teens than The Pixies or Mudhoney were (who 13 year olds were never going to like), and that they didn’t decide to go softer like Teenage Fanclub did with their Big Star tribute album that same year, since the real competition that year was going to be Metallica, Guns n Roses and Skid Row instead of a non-hard rock band.

        Also, Andy Wallace did an incredible job mixing that album to make it accessible to the mainstream. He should be getting some of the credit Butch Vig does, but Cobain trashed his job to try to be cool, so people just went along with it.

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    6. Overrated. Has not aged well over time. But far from terrible, obviously.

  2. Nirvana sucked.

  3. How many people can there be, Nirvana fans or not, who don’t know at least a part of the Kurt Cobain story by now?

    I know his name, I know he was the lead singer of Nirvana, I know he dated Courtney Love, and I know he died (A drug overdose?? That’s what I thought.). And that’s all I know about Kurt Cobain.

    1. A drug overdose??

      Nope. Blew his own head off with a shotgun.

  4. The fake blonde one on the left killed Kurt.

  5. The fact that people are still this interested in Cobain 20 years after his death and his band that released 1 decent record and 2 meh records says a lot about the state of music today methinks.

    Much of it is the media, the fracturing of genres, the quality of today’s music and how we listen to music these days I imagine but Cobain and Nirvana likely will be the last all encompassing musical sensation that we’ll see in our collective lifetimes…

    1. Someone wrote years ago that if Cobain ever saw the adulation that’s been heaped on his memory since 1994, it would kill him–again.

    2. IMO, it happened years before the microgenre split. The death of non-conglomerate radio stations is what killed “good music being mainstream.” Once Clear Channel and the like took over, and the independent radio stations that had been breaking bands either went under or were bought by a corporation that has a national playlist, it came down to record labels to choose who to push to the mainstream audience. And as we all know, major labels don’t have a clue about music.

      Remember Teenage Fanclub’s Bandwagonesque (which is a good album, not knocking it) was what Geffen pushed over Nirvana in 1991. And that was tone deaf to what the public wanted. But radio stations picked up on “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and ignored “What You Do To Me”, and Geffen got the message. Of course today, a major would probably keep pushing what they originally thought was going to be the band to break and ignore the public.

  6. The RiffTrax/MST3k the Room mockery sounds awesome. I will be in one of those 650 theaters.

    1. You are tearing me apart, jay_dubya!

  7. In the pantheon of deeply shitty movies, Tommy Wiseau’s The Room has risen to preeminence.

    Don’t hold back, tell us how you really feel…

    I’ve never seen it, but I’ve heard it is so bad it’s unintentionally hilarious.

    1. I don’t know. Even with the RiffTrax, I found it almost unwatchable.

      It works better when the guys use lines from it as riffs in other movies (“What kind of drugs, Denny?!?!?!?!?!?! IT”S NOTHING LIKE THAT!”)

  8. I’ve never seen The Room, but I’ve read plenty of synopses, quotes, descriptions, scathing reviews, etc. And according to my reading, other than production-related goofs, it doesn’t sound any worse than your typical pretentious art movie. Can it really be that much worse than I Heart Huckabees?

    1. Unlike IHH, “The Room” is actually entertaining….

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  10. To decide if a musician, actor, film, novel, painter, athlete, beer, whiskey, etc is overrated, I need to know its official rating. I liked/ like some of nirvana’s music, but i’ll grant you that since some folks lauded nirvana as the greatest fukkin thing ever, then sure, folks overrated ’em. IMO some folks underrated nirvana, but not as many. Dying @ 27 makes angels, martyrs, & rich widows

    1. It’s mostly the St. Kurt treatment that turns people off. I don’t see how you can dislike Nevermind strongly enough to say it doesn’t warrant acclaim still in 2015. It’s still a damn good album. And In Utero is still pretty good to my ears as well.

      I’d definitely agree that people who say things like “Nirvana were the most important band since The Beatles” are full of shit, since they clearly didn’t have anywhere near the lasting impression The Beatles did, nor were they anywhere near as good. But even if you hate Nevermind, it probably opened the door for a band you like getting attention in the mid-90s, since record labels did stop being conservative in who they signed for a few years. Spin’s website once had a list of post-Nevermind albums that are dumb founding that they were released on a major label. So at least give the dead brother credit for that.

  11. (Contemplating his lumpy, shirtless torso, one of the MST lads wondered if it was made out of Madonna’s arms.)

    This line caused tears to stream down my face.

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