Authorized Kurt Cobain documentary will premiere at Sundance
January 20, 2015
The story of Seattle band Nirvana is a familiar lesson in pop culture.
The band’s rise to superstardom in the early 1990s led to a paradigm shift in the music industry and pushed grunge rock to the top of the charts.
Nirvana’s whirlwind career led to a string of music awards, multi-platinum-selling albums and sellout concerts around the world.
Many viewed the band’s lead singer and guitarist Kurt Cobain as savoir of modern music, and when he committed suicide in 1994, he was viewed as a martyr the likes of Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Elvis Presley.
It is a story that has been told many times before, but when documentary filmmaker Brett Morgen premieres "Kurt Cobain: Montage from Heck" at the Sundance Film Festival on Saturday, Jan. 24, it will be the first time Cobain’s story will be the subject of an authorized documentary to date.
The film will have its world premiere on Saturday, Jan. 24, at the MARC Theatre, 1200 Little Kate Rd., at 5 p.m., and Morgen is looking forward to the event.
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"Nobody, including the programmers at Sundance, has seen the finished version of the film," Morgen told The Park Record during a phone call from Warner Bros. Studios in Los Angeles, California, where he was mixing the film. "We submitted an unfinished version to Sundance that had no animation or visual effects, and in the meanwhile, we’ve added more than 55 minutes of effects and animation, so it will be a real experience."
The film has already been picked up by HBO and will debut on the network on May 4 in the United States, according to Morgen.
Morgen, whose parents live in Oakley, is no stranger to the Sundance Film Festival.
He started his career as a New York University film student at Sundance 16 years ago with a boxing film called "On the Ropes." He returned three years later with, "The Kid Stays in the Film," the festival’s closing-night film, which was about film legend Robert Evans.
In 2007, Morgen’s film, "Chicago 10," an animated documentary about the anti-Vietnam War movement, was the festival’s opening film.
"All the movies and Sundance experiences have been unique," he said. "This time, I’m going in with distribution and I can’t tell you how excited I am to reveal this movie to the world."
"Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck" was built around artifacts that Morgen had access to in a storage unit in Washington.
"Most of the material we will unearth in Park City has never been seen or heard," he said. "It will be like a Kurt Cobain mystery candy box, and I think a new Kurt Cobain will emerge."
Morgen began working on the film eight years ago after Cobain’s widow, Courtney Love, contacted him about making a documentary.
"Six of those eight years was spent getting the rights together," Morgen explained. "It was a complicated movie to acquire the rights to because of the many parties involved."
Not only did he talk with Love, but also Cobain’s immediate family, his band mates, the record companies and close friends.
Cobain’s daughter, Frances Bean Cobain, signed on as the films executive director.
"At the end of the day, I was able to acquire the rights and was given final cut of the film, which is unheard of in an authorized biography," Morgen said. "So, it was the most creatively rewarding experience that I have ever had and if someone doesn’t like it, they can just blame me."
The filmmaker knew the film would be one of the more-scrutinized works he has ever done.
"With a movie like this, especially when it has to do with someone like Kurt Cobain, people will always ask what the agenda of the filmmaker was," Morgen said. "I can say the only agenda I had was to try to create an intimate experience for the viewer with Kurt. I wanted to piece together his life through his own art and media, and I’m super jazzed to do this."
There were a number of factors that made this film a more-personal experience than his other films, according to Morgen.
"The first was the cultural impact Kurt had on my life and my generation," he said. "Secondly, my films tend to be more expressive and animated, which is different than most documentaries. So, when I realized all of the different visual art that Kurt has created, I felt this was the perfect canvas to work with."
As Morgen got deep into the film he realized this was the first time he made a film about someone who was his own age.
"All my others have been about 70-year-old men," he said with a laugh. "This wasn’t a documentary that I wouldn’t make from viewing my subjects from afar, but a documentary that I would make about my generation.
"It’s as much about my life as it is about Kurt’s life, and hopefully the lives of people who grew up at that time," Morgen said. "For those of us who grew up kind of on the outside of the mainstream, especially during the Reagan/Bush years, we felt like we were under a red cloud and then all of a sudden, boom, here came Nirvana that kind of planted a flag."
One of the most memorable events during the filmmaking happened in the storage unit.
"Of all the elements that I discovered while making the film, the one that had a profound impact on me was a mixed-audio tape that Kurt created," Morgen said. "To set the scene, I was in this storage facility surrounded by Kurt’s stuff. There were all of his paintings, and guitars and journals.
"I had set up a recording area and I put on this one tape that was labeled ‘Montage of Heck,’" he said. "I didn’t know what it was, but here I was, surrounded by his stuff and this sound came out of these headphones and what I heard brought me closer to Kurt more than anything that was in the room. It was like a portal into his mind."
The tape contained some of Cobain’s favorite music, including kitschy music and science fiction and horror film themes and soundtracks.
"It was funny, scary and romantic," Morgen said. "When I heard that, I knew I had the blueprint to make this film."
The responsibility of making the first authorized documentary about Kurt Cobain is something Morgen felt every day.
"That wasn’t to be taken lightly," he said. "I am beholden and have tremendous gratitude to his family members for giving me total access, but my primary responsibility was to Kurt.
"If you’re going to think of a film festival to premiere a Kurt Cobain film, it has to be Sundance, because of its independent spirit and honesty," Morgen said. "We’re jazzed to be able to do this. There is no place I’d rather be than Sundance next Saturday night."
The Sundance Film Festival will premiere "Kurt Cobain: Montage from Heck" at the MARC Theatre, 1200 Little Kate Rd., on Saturday, Jan. 24, at 5 p.m. Additional screenings will be held at The Grand Theatre in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Jan. 25, at 3 p.m., The Temple Theatre in Park City on Monday, Jan. 26, at 9 a.m. and at the Sundance Mountain Resort on Wednesday, Jan. 28, at 3 p.m. For more information, visit http://www.sundance.org.