Kurt Cobain: About a Son
Shout! Factory/Sidetrack Films (2/19/08)
“There’s this very hushed, late night, intimate feeling to those conversations that I didn’t even really realize was there because it was just me talking to Kurt. But, looking back on it, there’s this, you know… it’s not like a regular interview situation. It’s just two people talking.”
The documentary Kurt Cobain: About a Son can be summed up two words: Simply phenomenal.
Culled from more than 25 hours of audiotaped conversations between Cobain and writer Michael Azerrad (who was working on his book Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana at the time) around the end of 1992 and beginning of 1993, the film basically tells the story of the fallen rock star in his own words. It is a moving tale, where Cobain shares intimate details of his early childhood growing up in Aberdeen, Wash., and subsequent moves to Olympia, Wash., and Seattle. He appears to hold nothing back, talking about his relationship with his mother and father, his unpleasant school years, his efforts to build a band, struggles with fame and drugs, and ultimate (apparent) acceptance of his life.
“Virtually all these conversations took place starting around midnight at Kurt’s house,” Azerrad said in an interview on the DVD. “He would wake up at three in the afternoon, or so, typically everyday, go about his business and then, you know, kind of call me that evening and say, ‘OK, I’m ready. Come by.’
“And so, we’d sit down, either in the living room with the TV set on in the background, and talk, or we’d be up in the kitchen. … His kitchen overlooked this lake where bi-planes would land sometimes. We’d just sit at his kitchen table and often talk ’til, you know, dawn. And the sun would come up and the bi-planes would start landing on the lake and we’d just kick back and watch.”
Since the audience knows how the story ultimately ends, many of the discussions are all the more haunting—from Cobain’s frank discussion about how and why he started using hard drugs, to his disgust and distain for the journalists that were always looking for an angle. Perhaps nothing is as striking as when, while discussing the physical pain he had endured for most of his life, he talks about “blowing [his] head off” and killing himself.
But for every haunting moment, there’s also some extremely humanizing moments hidden on here, too. Most poignant is when, toward the end of the film, wife Courtney Love calls to Cobain and asks him to begin preparing a bottle for the baby in a few minutes. Sadly, a side of the star not many ever got the chance to see.
The film itself is extremely simple. The star here is the audio of Cobain. Director AJ Schnack traveled around Washington gathering images and video of the various places Cobain grew up, lived in or talked about. In an attempt to have a sort of underlying current, there are also many portraits of the locals, meant to show the juxtaposition between the towns that are in so close proximity to one another.
As a final touch, music from many of Cobain’s favorite bands is mixed in for good measure. Tracks from Queen, David Bowie, Leadbelly, Scratch Acid and Butthole Surfers (to name only a few) accentuate the proceedings. When Cobain talks about taking a nap in his father’s van when spending the day with him at work, and listening to an eight-track of Queen, you hear the song he’s talking about.
About a Son debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2006, was nominated for a 2007 Independent Spirit Award and was screened at numerous top international film festivals around the world. Rolling Stone has called it “the movie that’s moving audiences to tears.”
Sure, there have been other documentaries about Cobain in the past; none of this is new material. But never before have you heard it all straight from him. The visuals are expertly shot, but not a necessity. At any point you can simply shut your eyes and listen to the stories.
The movie is presented in 16:9 widescreen, with 5.1 Dolby Digital surround. In addition to the movie, the DVD also contains a featurette on the making of the film (where the quotes in this review came from), some selected scene commentary with Schnack and another feature on scouting video.
This is, by far, not only the best Cobain documentary to come out, but one of the best rock documentaries to come out, period. As Schnack points out, nothing really ties this to a time or place. It’s just the story of a man who had a not-so-great childhood, struggled for a few years and hit it big with his band. You don’t have to be a fan of Nirvana to love this movie. At its core, it’s nothing more than a moving true story with a tragic ending.
As Azerrad sums it up: “Kurt Cobain was a person just like everybody else. He cried and laughed and loved his child and loved his wife and was frustrated and happy and jovial and all those things. And, I think a lot of that has been taken away from his in the intervening years since his death. He’s just become an icon, and an enigma. You know, kind of dehumanized.”