August 2, 2008

He's not there

“People don’t deserve to know,” says Kurt Cobain not long after the start of About a Son, before he goes on to tell the people everything. That's only one of many contradictions about this Kurt, caught between sincerity and sarcasm and wise to his own contrarian nature (he wanted to be part of a scene, then hated the scene, time and time again). The disembodied Kurt of this film is shaped from some 25 hours of audio interviews by journalist Michael Azerrad, from about a year before the suicide.

There’s no Nirvana music or footage or video interviews, and no Kurt Cobain images at all until a series of powerful black-and-white stills in the closing seconds. Director AJ Schnack is charged with finding environmental images to match the audio – a lot of slow pans, a lot of time-lapse, summing up the three places that shaped him: the working-class logging town of Aberdeen, the bohemian colony of Olympia and the big city that he originally feared and resented, Seattle. High school alienation scenes in Aberdeen evoke the Gus Van Sant of Elephant – and in a curious way, this is also a neat fit with Van Sant’s Last Days. In that film, we got a Kurt who was seen and not heard; here, the reverse.

You might be right to have felt sceptical. The idea of shaping a rock bio-doco around old interview tapes is the kind of barrel-scraping exercise you expect from, say, the Jim Morrison estate. But this works marvellously: it's a private tour of his musical and environmental influences, a touching and intimate portrait. Julian Temple did a similar thing in his Joe Strummer film, The Future is Unwritten, but he also crammed in fresh interviews, archival footage and so on and on; that was a dense, hyper-active collage where this is more meditative. It suits the subject. And so much for his legendary truculence: this Kurt Cobain is honest, revealing, earnest, self-aware, even responsible. It helps that, in early 1993, Azerrad found him in a good mood – he was toying with canning Nirvana, and his life had come down to a gang of three: him, Courtney and the baby, which is about as big a scene as he ever wanted to stick with. Only one thing really stirs him: the impact of fame, fame, fatal fame. A persecution-by-media speech rivals the paranoia of I’m Not There’s hunted Dylan or lines from "The Ballad of John and Yoko". He says, “We’re not going to survive this. Everyone wants to see us die.”

Well, hindsight's easy. Azerrad, also a producer on the film, is alert to a greater theme: Cobain as the fan who crossed over to the other side. I never read Azerrad's Come as You Are, the Nirvana book that followed these interviews, but I did read Our Band Could Be Your Life, his excellent study of the cultish dedication that surrounded 80s American post-punk and hardcore bands. Cobain was a student of that era and he would have been happy with that level of success, to have been a Butthole Surfers or a Scratch Acid. But he also rejected the style limitations of Olympia's insular indie scene and even Sub Pop. He wanted to be the Beatles and Black Sabbath, pop and noise and everything in between. And at the same time, he didn't.