I first saw Kurt and Courtney on DVD. I was embarking on my own lo-fi experiment at the time as arts and entertainment reporter for a local cable TV program and I was intrigued by director Nick Broomfield’s deliberately downmarket style. ( I even watched Broomfield’s Biggie and Tupac and Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer.)
In the wake of the twentieth anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s passing (and the induction of Nirvana in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame), I viewed the documentary again on crackle.com.
The film starts out conventionally enough with the facts surrounding the discovery of Mr. Cobain’s body (Broomfield informs us in a voiceover that the Nirvana frontman was killed by a shotgun blast to the head. The official verdict was suicide.)
Having established that Mr. Cobain felt uncomfortable with his level of fame and suffered from a crippling heroin addiction Mr. Broomfield has nowhere to go and a lot of tape to fill so it’s off to Seattle to visit Aunt Mary where we hear baby Kurt singing “Hey, hey, we’re the Monkees” and making a brief appearance as a teenager in a home movie.
The locale shifts to the small logging town of Aberdeen, Wash. where Mr. Broomfield “interviews” Dylan Carlson, Kurt’s bandmate in a pre-Nirvana group. We are also introduced to one of Mr. Cobain’s teachers; Ms. Love’s former boyfriend; some of Kurt’s boyhood friends and a mysterious woman known only as Chelsea whom Mr. Broomfield “interviews” after she sticks a cryptic note on his windshield.
“The people he interviewed in Kurt & Courtney were hilarious. Half of them were almost nodded out on completely heroin,” writes a poster called DocumentaryAddict on Broomfield’s IMDB message board.
A poster on imdb identified as “melindack26” is less enthusiastic: “…. pathetic interviewees …. who claim to have known the subjects, have absolutely no proof, and babble incoherently with wild speculation.”
Even Broomfield admits at one point in the film that “I didn’t have an angle on the story. I was just trying to find my way through it.”
It slowly becomes apparent (to me, anyway) that this doc is not so much about Kurt Cobain and his wife as it is about Broomfield and his struggle to make the flick. This may have been all right, even encouraged, in the Golden Age of showboating Michael Moore style docs. However, in a time when filmmakers like Academy Award winner Alex Gibney have raised the bar for all documentarians Bromfield comes across (at least to this viewer) as dated and a tad self-absorbed.
Shadowy financiers threaten to pull out, rights to the Nirvana song catalog are withheld (Mr. Broomfield may be the only filmmaker to lens a feature on the late Nirvana frontman without featuring any Nirvana music) and it is darkly hinted throughout the film that Ms. Love and/or her minions are somehow responsible.
It isn’t long before Mr. Broomfield is investigating those pesky conspiracy theories surrounding Mr. Cobain’s sudden death.
Roger Ebert once wrote that “in all of Broomfield’s films, you meet people you can hardly believe exist” and in this case one of the freaks on display is El Duce, a heavy metal wannabe and self-styled hitman who claims Courtney Love offered him 50 grand to “whack” Kurt Cobain. (We later learn Mr. Duce met his Maker after stumbling drunkenly into the path of a train.)
Courtney’s father. Hank Harrison, a onetime music biz manager and author of Kurt Cobain, Beyond Nirvana: The Legacy of Kurt Cobain seems to achieve an instant rapport with the film-maker. (Kindred spirits?) I may never be able to relate to Ms. Love (although I admired her performances in The Man in the Moon and The People vs. Larry Flynt) but I have some insight into her chaotic lifestyle and personality after listening to Dad in this film.
Was Courtney disciplined as a child by Rottweilers, Mr. Broomfield asks. (It’s not the first time nor the last that I get a whiff of tabloid sleaze. Phew! Smells like mean spirit.)
“No, pit bulls,”replies Mr. Harrison amiably. It’s all part of his “tough love” approach to parenting, apparently.
Mr. Harrison will never win a Father of the Year award. Nor does he care.
“Keep on bad rappin’ me,” he warns his absent daughter , “and I’ll keep kickin’ your arse (sic).”
“I love how hes in and out of shots with his 1970’s head phones and camera pack. LOL Perhaps he should do comedy instead of docs,” writes DocumentaryAddict in another imdb thread. Either this poster is an ardent fan or boasts an especially subtle sense of satire. Whatever. I respectfully submit that no matter what the reason the human tragedy that marks the final phase of Mr. Cobain’s life is no fit subject for comedy. (But then that is just me.)
Not surprisingly, the film received mixed reviews upon its release.
“Thoroughly watchable,” writes Kenneth Turan in LA Times, “in a bad car accident, trash TV kind of way.”
And that was one of the positive reviews.
PS What is it with musicians and heroin? Bradley Nowell/Sublime, Layne Staley/Alice in Chains and Darby Crash/Germs are just a few of the recent casualties when it comes to heroin overdoses. Even at the height of my drug experimentation phase (back when my hair was longer) my social circle knew enough to stay away from that particular horse. A flood of new and dangerous designer drugs have emerged, making heroin seem positively old school but, as recent events have demonstrated, the drug still has a lethal kick.)