By Matt Singer
[Photo: AJ Schnack’s “Kurt Cobain About a Son,” Balcony Releasing, 2007]
Though Kurt Cobain is (obviously) the subject and star of this documentary, he does not appear on screen at all until the very end of the film’s 90-minute running time. Instead, “About a Son” is a compilation of the highlights of some 25 hours of never-before-heard audio interviews with Cobain, set against a collection of images of the Pacific Northwest where Cobain grew up, lived and worked. The result is interesting and, at times, a little unnerving, like taking a walk down the haunted streets of Seattle, WA while the ghost of Kurt Cobain whispers in your ear.
The most famous musician of his generation guides us through his unhappy upbringing, his unhappy formative years and his unhappy time as one of the biggest rock stars in the world. Very little of what Cobain has to say about anything is positive; he’s sort of a far less funny (and far less Jewish) Woody Allen: angry at life, skeptical of others and pessimistic to no end. He talks about his drug use (“I did heroin a lot,” he states bluntly) his desire to quit the band and hints at the sad end of his life when he discusses his chronic stomach pain and his suicidal thoughts.
Because we never see Cobain, it’s easy to forget that he’s the one who’s talking. For someone with one of the most distinctive singing voices in a century, Cobain’s speaking voice is so indistinct. There is none of that iconic howl that was so crucial to Nirvana’s success in these interviews. And by refusing to show him to us, director AJ Schnack has stripped Cobain of his mystique. Cobain’s allowed to be who he perhaps was beneath all that: an incredibly thoughtful, discontented musician.
Michael Azerrad, former Rolling Stone editor and author of as “Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana,” conducted the first of the interviews with Cobain on my 12th birthday. Months before my 13th birthday, Cobain was dead. Though some of my hipper friends had already discovered grunge, I was still mired in the comedy record ghetto, years away from discovering pop music. If you’d played those opening iconic notes from “Smells Like Teen Spirit” back then, I’d have probably started singing the words of the Weird Al parody version, “Smells Like Nirvana.”
Which is all to suggest that I am not a Nirvana expert, and not even really much of a fan (I’m probably a bigger fan of Azerrad, who also wrote the superb book “Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes From the American Indie Underground 1981-1991”) and I can’t speak here to how a Nirvana obsessive may react to the film. My reaction was largely sadness, not just for Cobain’s problems, but for his self-awareness of them coupled with his inability to correct them. He sounds like a man strapped into an amusement park ride who’s discovered he wants to get off just after the train’s left the station. A lot of documentaries about musicians make you want to go and put on one of the band’s records as soon as the film is over. “Kurt Cobain About a Son” which doesn’t a feature a note of Nirvana music on its soundtrack didn’t make me want to do that. It made me want to take a deep breath and a long walk in the sunshine.
“Kurt Cobain About a Son” is now in theaters (official site).