Kurt Cobain: About a Son
A Film by AJ Schnack
(Shout! Factory/Sidetrack Films)
First Appeared in The Music Box, March 2008, Volume 15, #3
Written by John Metzger
Sun March 16, 2008, 03:10 PM CDT
The formula typically employed by documentaries that revolve around those in the entertainment field was established years ago. Essentially, archival footage and reflective interviews are spliced together to highlight the rise and fall of an artist. By turning it into a cookie-cutter enterprise, VH-1ís Behind the Music series merely cemented this sensationalistic framework for all posterity.
Indisputably, it would have been an easy task to apply the same structure to a film about Kurt Cobain because, although the specific details are different, the arc of his life follows the same pattern as James Deanís, Jim Morrisonís, and Shannon Hoonís, to name a few of those who died well before their time. Fortunately, in making Kurt Cobain: About a Son, director AJ Schnack and journalist Michael Azerrad resisted the urge to simply retell a tale that has become far too familiar. While many may condemn them for following a more subtle path, their movie doesnít succumb to superficial drama; instead, it rises above the mythology that has surrounded Cobain. The result is a positively brilliant, riveting, and insightful work of art.
In creating About a Son, Schnack and Azerrad employed a routine film-making strategy by developing a script and then creating the visuals to go along with it. Still, the movie was constructed from the barest essentials. It is based entirely upon a series of audio interviews that Azerrad conducted at Cobainís Seattle home over a period of several months in late 1992 and early 1993 for his book Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana. Yet, while Cobain serves as the narrator for the story, it becomes clear, within the pictureís first 10 minutes, that this is not a typical biographical documentary.
For starters, About a Son avoids directly addressing the events that shaped Nirvanaís rise and Cobainís demise, and aside from a few photographs, neither he nor his band visually appears in the film. Schnack instead captured contemporary video portraits of the towns in which Cobain had lived, and he follows ordinary people as they tread through the schools, the houses, the lumberyards, and the alleys that Cobain had frequented. At times, the vantage point is meant to be literal; at other moments, it impressionistically illustrates the sorts of experiences that Cobain had. To these, Schnack adds animated sequences that seem to be designed specifically to draw direct correlations to the alienated ambience that pervaded Pink Floydís The Wall.
The soundtrack for About a Son is equally unusual. Instead of using recordings from Nirvanaís canon, Schnack fused original material by Steve Fisk and Benjamin Gibbard to tunes by other artists ó including R.E.M., Bad Brains, David Bowie, and The Vaselines ó all of whom had played an influential role in Cobainís development as a songwriter. In other words, there is little in the movie that fans would expect to hear or see, and this proves to be a useful tool for liberating Cobainís actual persona from any preconceived notions of who he was.
A lot of credit must be given to Azerrad, too, because the foundation of About a Sonís success rests squarely on his interviews. The 25 hours of tape that he had amassed for Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana were whittled down to a mere 95-minutes of dialogue, but the result is that Cobainís words collectively paint a portrait not of an idolized rock star but rather of a human being. Itís obvious that Cobain trusted Azerrad. Yet, itís still stunning to hear how candidly and openly he talked about his experiences, his feelings, and his issues. After his parentsí divorce shattered his otherwise happy childhood, he, like many other teenagers of his generation, struggled immensely to find his own identity. Yet, he also acknowledged that, within the grander scheme of the world, he had a good life.
As odd as it may seem, for all of his problems, Cobain was a remarkably grounded individual. He understood more about the reasons behind his actions than most people might surmise. He wanted to be a rock star as much as he resisted it, though his reluctance also stemmed from a deeply rooted need to rebel against whatever community was beginning to accept him. He was a devoted father who worried about how the false statements that tabloid journalists were making about him and his wife Courtney Love would impact their daughter later in her life. He felt trapped when Nirvana became so successful that being in the band became as tedious as any other job. There are, of course, no answers as to why he eventually took his own life, but it is apparent that this was something he had contemplated frequently as means of escaping, at least in part, from his chronic stomach pain for which his unsustainable addiction to heroin seemed to provide the only real relief.
Perhaps, the most telling moment of About a Son occurs, however, when Cobain talks about his pet turtles. He explains how their shells arenít terribly protective, and therefore, if he were to knock on their hard exteriors, it actually would cause them pain. He also makes a point of describing how, if the turtles fall on their backs, they can split open and die. In a sense, his turtles were metaphors for his own existence. At a critical age, he had developed an emotional cocoon to insulate himself from the pain of his fatherís rejection, and this pattern repeated itself throughout his life, leaving him feeling trapped and isolated by his circumstances. As much as it appeared as if he cared little about what other people thought of him and his work, he truly worried that no one would understand what he was trying to accomplish.
About a Son is successful not because it tells a complete story, but rather because it captures the essence of who Cobain was. By allowing Cobain to define himself with his own words, Schnack and Azerrad created an intimate, honest, and revealing portrait of a man who remains as misunderstood as he was idolized. About a Son tears down the walls that typically are erected between rock stars and their fans, and as a result, it puts Cobainís life into perspective in a way that is thought-provoking, powerful, and moving.
Of Further Interest...
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
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