February 7, 2008

yeah all those stars drip down like butter

About fifteen minutes into the Kurt Cobain film About A Son, I realized that I was a little confused. This was not a traditional documentary-style visual narrative that I had been expecting, but rather something that unfolds slowly and rewards your patience.

About A Son has been on the film festival circuit since 2006, and is finally seeing DVD release February 19th (the day before Kurt’s 41st birthday) through Shout Factory. The film is narrated entirely by Kurt’s own voice (and, in the background, that of the interviewer/author Michael Azerrad) in conversations recorded in the after-midnight, predawn hours at Kurt’s home in Seattle. These were taped between December ’92 and March ’93 for Azerrad’s book Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana [Main Street Books, 1993].

Rather than trying to go back and recreate Kurt’s precise steps through a landscape that just doesn’t exist anymore, director AJ Schnack decides to accompany the story with an anonymous amalgamam of 35mm-shot images, panoramas, and stream-of-consciousness visual narratives. It reminded me of taking a car ride somewhere with Kurt and watching out the window as he talked. No images of the band even show up until 58 minutes in, no live footage of Kurt at all (other than some haunting still shots before the credits). As he muses, there are drive-by shots of rundown houses of Aberdeen, or a forklift loading a stack of logs, or a dead bird’s raw flesh on the seashore. There are faces of random people from the towns he lived, looking unflinchingly into the lens.

The images seem obscure sometimes; they’re often not tidily connected to exactly what Kurt is talking about, but as you watch, interesting parallels start to appear. For example when he’s sharing his thoughts on fame and the press and journalists, suddenly you realize we’re watching a sea lion swimming around in captivity through an aquarium glass in Seattle. In a way the visuals highlight the relative anonymity of most of his life, how he could have been anyone, just another alienated kid. It’s a thread that is echoed in Kurt’s own words, when Azerrad asks him, “Is yours a sad story?” He pauses and then he says, “It’s nothing that’s amazing or anything new . . . that’s for sure.”

Kurt talks circuitously through themes of alienation, sexuality, fame, marriage, success, art, community, and at several points he also makes reference to blowing his own head off to escape the pain in his stomach. Much is revealed about his life and his way of processing things that I had never heard. It’s intimate and sad at the very end where we hear Courtney’s voice break into the interview, middle-of-the-night, new-parent exhausted, asking Kurt to bring up a Similac bottle when he comes up, and not to forget.

The eclectic music used in the film goes admirably beyond the tired-out strategy of using famous Seattle music to talk about Seattle films. Instead, the music is a literal soundtrack to this particular story, to this particular life. There are some bands that Kurt talks about loving, ones like Queen from his early years, and also lesser-known musical contemporaries that he talks about admiring. It’s diverse: you’ve got Arlo Guthrie singin’ about riding on his motorcycle, and also R.E.M.’s “New Orleans Instrumental No. 1″ overlying a dizzyingly-colored surreal segment on drug use.

I appreciated how the songs tease out the conflicts between what Kurt saw and what he felt; for example, the brilliant juxtaposition of the Big Black song “”Kerosene” (“I was born in this town, lived here my whole life, probably come to die in this town”) and a cheery librarian shelving books at the golden glow of the Aberdeen public library where he would go when he had nowhere else to stay warm and occupied during his young & hungry days.

The original score by Steve Fisk and (Death Cab For Cutie’s) Ben Gibbard is ethereal, echoey, unsettling. I ripped the song that plays at the end of the film over the black and white pictures of Kurt laying on stage wailing his guitar, then held high atop the hands of the crowd, sitting on an unmade bed with mournful eyes, steadying Frances Bean as she tries to take a step. It’s the only images I recall of Kurt in the film. The score is out on vinyl through Barsuk, also on February 19th.

Ending Credits (Chaos & Resolution?) – Steve Fisk & Benjamin Gibbard

Star Sign – Teenage Fanclub
(this was in the film –when he’s talking about Courtney– but not on the soundtrack)

Asking For It (w/ Kurt on backing vocals) – Hole



GIVEAWAY: Leave me a comment with some thoughts and a way to contact you if you would like to be considered for the About A Son DVD I have to giveaway.

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  • I’m glad you liked it … though I didn’t. Saw this one in the theater. It was probably too late and I was probably too tired, but it revealed something to me that I never knew until now … Kurt Cobain was one lucky son of a bitch. You know? He could have been anyone doing what he did. He even talks about how they had no message or purpose in the beginning, got popular and THEN decided to be “about” something. Yeah, some legend you got there …

    Dainon. — February 8, 2008 @ 1:19 pm

  • I have been really intrigued by this since the day I first read about it. I am a “commercial radio” employee haha. I stop here daily to see what you are talking about. We have very similar tastes starting at Pearl Jam and going from there. Anyway, if you want to consider me for a giveaway cool. If not , just thought i would break my silence and say hi!

    nixon — February 8, 2008 @ 2:33 pm

  • i’m afraid i have to echo jj’s comment. At the time, i couldn’t have been less into Nirvana. i distinctly remember the day he died, too, but we actually made fun of it at the time. The whole celebrity suicide thing pissed me off at the time. Since then, i’ve become a pretty big Nirvana fan, interestingly enough with the help of a brother who is 12 years younger than me and had no idea who or what Nirvana was at the time.

    My Pop often claims one of his greatest musical “regrets” was not seeing Janis Joplin before she OD’d. He had tix to see her and everything and then she died scant weeks before the date. i now feel that way about Nirvana.

    i’d like to throw my hat into the ring for this one, too. i’ve been hearing about this DVD for a while now and would love to have the opportunity to judge it for myself.

    oddbodkins at gmail dot com

    CD — February 8, 2008 @ 2:37 pm

  • Oh, one more thing. That track is labeled incorrectly. The title is “Asking For It,” from the album “Live Through This.”

    Gotta love the interwebs.

    CD — February 8, 2008 @ 2:53 pm

  • Really? thanks CD. I’ve loved that song for years and somehow that slipped right past me. Doh! I’ll fix it up.

    heather — February 8, 2008 @ 2:57 pm

  • I saw this last year as part of the film festival and I was absolutely blown away. I found the whole thing kinda haunting, the soundtrack was brilliant. One of the best insights into Kurt I have seen I think. I left the theatre feeling kinda sad, he was just this misunderstood guy who never craved attention, he just wanted to play his songs and be a good husband and a father.


    Sarah N — February 8, 2008 @ 5:10 pm

  • I’d like to check out the film. I recall reading a review of it about six months ago in one of Philly’s weekly alternatives.

    I recall hearing news of Cobain’s death on one of Philly’s rock stations while pulling up to park outside my house with my best friend in the car after playing baseball.

    I hate it that the Pearl Jam-Nirvana riff still exists — all these years later. They were different, and in my opinion, PJ showed its authenticity in ways Nirvana never did. If “Corporate Magazines Still Suck,” why do the Rolling Stone interview. PJ stopped shameless promotion via videos and still sold almost 1 million copies of “Vs.” in five days (it’s counted, these days, over seven days). That’s not a nock on Nirvana but is meant to clear the air for friends looking in on this forum.

    Keep up the great work, Heather. You sounded brilliant on the NPR interview.


    Anonymous — February 8, 2008 @ 5:14 pm

  • Heather, I forgot my info: brossiter25@yahoo.com


    Anonymous — February 8, 2008 @ 5:17 pm

  • nice reference in the post title!! REM Let Me In, supposed to be about Kurt, right? I’ve always really felt that song – that whole album actually.

    Anonymous — February 8, 2008 @ 5:37 pm

  • Heather,
    Fair is fair – so says Billy Jean. Agree to disagree.

    Again – maybe my opinion would have been different if I hadn’t spoken with AJ and heard his ideas on this which, by the way, edged on delusions of grandeur. To me this is another drop squeezed from the Nirvana/Kurt Cobain sponge. Really the ideas behind the original interviews weren’t too have them editorially comprised to narrate a documentary. I said this immediately after I saw it and I’ll say it again – it was like taking scraps off the cutting room floor and making another album. Is it about a boy or more about ex post facto celebrity worship. If you listen to Kurt this sounds like the last thing he would have wanted. It’s easy to make something like this 10+ after someone’s dead but this never would have flown when Kurt was alive.

    Again – agree to disagree. ;)

    pedro — February 8, 2008 @ 6:40 pm

  • If it’s illegal to rock and roll, throw my ass in jail! (k.d.cobain)


    riany — February 8, 2008 @ 9:12 pm

  • When I was 17 years old Nirvana came to So Cal and played at the Forum in Inglewood (1993). I tried to buy tickets but they sold out so fast that I couldn’t get through. Day of the concert comes and I’m totally bummed out, but my old man comes to me and asks if I want to go with him to the Nirvana concert. We went and it was the best best concert I’ve ever seen. A year later Kurt was dead and 7 years later my father was. It’s been an enduring memory for me. Everytime I hear “Jesus Wants Me For A Sunbeam” I remember Kurt stopped to yell at a guy groping someone in the audience. The band then picked up the song where they left off. I was so disillusioned with Kurt’s death that I couldn’t listen to Nirvana for years. Your idols are not immortal.

    Matt De Mello


    Matty D — February 9, 2008 @ 2:37 am

  • just: thank you.

    Trudatman — February 9, 2008 @ 6:23 am

  • I bought that Michael Azerrad book *before* they added the final chapter. Still have it. apollo_c_vermouth *at* hotmail.
    Thanks for this.

    Sara — February 9, 2008 @ 7:42 am

  • Matt, my dad flew down to San Diego with me in Nov 1995 to see Pearl Jam. It still makes him the best dad ever in my mind. Thanks for sharing your dad-concert story too.

    heather — February 9, 2008 @ 7:47 am

  • I didn’t realize you had a contest when I went to comment. I was going to compliment you on the title of the post – a great tie it between Nirvana & REM. Thanks for all the great posts. I really enjoy your writing and your musical sense.



    Michael — February 9, 2008 @ 9:56 am

  • “here we are now, entertain us…”

    another great review Heather. this movie never made it to Houston. I’ve been waiting for it to come out on dvd.

    Jay C — February 9, 2008 @ 10:07 am

  • I would def like to add my name to the “I would love the free dvd” contest. Nirvana comes and goes with me. I had the poster on my wall…loved the music simply because I could play along being a bad guitarist as I am…Mudhoney was my fav…Nirvana slipped into the mix of Seattle stuff. All and ALL I am amazed that they are the ones that became the focus point. PJ is on another level…and has all but fallen out of a grace with all my frieds due to very SO-SO music over the past years. Every music has a time and place, touches everyone differently, so more power to Nirvana for making it….sorry it had such a tragic cost. I will always sing along.

    SINEDDIE — February 9, 2008 @ 2:49 pm

  • Great write-up on the DVD, i’ve been a fan of Nirvana for as long as i can remember, and i’m majorly psyched to see this.
    Paul (bob_gangster@hotmail.com)

    the_anti_paul — February 10, 2008 @ 1:16 am

  • My pleasure, Heather. i wouldn’t have known myself if i didn’t do a little google searching trying to figure out where the track originated.

    And not to threadjack here or anything, but if we’re talking about kick ass “Dad concerts,” my old man took me to dozens over the years, but the highlight probably was taking my then 9-year-old behind to see Prince’s “Purple Rain” tour. He had no idea what he was taking me to, but i’ve been hooked on live music ever since. He’s taken me to see His Royal Badness many times since, but i finally was able to return the favor on his last tour when i bought the tix to see him in DC.

    Good times, good times.

    CD — February 11, 2008 @ 2:01 pm

  • “Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing there lies a field. I’ll meet you there.” – Rumi


    ASHKAHN — February 11, 2008 @ 6:24 pm

  • No prob, Heather. It was a defining moment in our tenuous relationship & music is always the antidote.

    Matty D — February 11, 2008 @ 11:30 pm

  • I think I was 14 when he died. I somehow convinced my mom spring break was for two weeks. I spent the free bonus week at my cousins in Lake Forest.

    I didn’t do drugs but my cousin did. Never around me. But I knew he did acid and smoked weed.

    I was just a fat kid with no self esteem. I bought my mom unplugged for mothers day.

    my mom called that day and told me about it. she told me my friends stopped by after school asking where I was.

    My cousin painted the back of his guitar that day


    nick bahula is dead — February 13, 2008 @ 12:17 am

  • I was 15 years old when Kurt Cobain died. I remember it like it was yesterday. I heard over the radio that their was a body found at Kurt’s residence. It took hours to disclose that it was him. I am not sure what changed that day in my life…but, something did. I think that at that point I realized the valunerability of people and also that their are some things that cannot be taken back. I sat in front of my TV for hours that day…wishing that I could take back the death of one of my first true hero’s. Music had become a big part of my life around this time and I was fully immersed in the “grunge” scene. My first sence of belonging….and then my hero died. This of course was to be followed by more of my hero’s leaving…Shannon Hoon, Layne Staley, and more people that I was to love later that I never had the chance to know their music when they were alive..John Lennon (Died when I was one), Janis, Jimmi, Harry Chapin (I was named after one of his songs), Rick Danko,Richard Manuel, Jim Morrison, John Bonham, Jerry Garcia, George Harrison, Bob Marley, Andy Wood (I discovered MLB after Andy’s death), Jeff Buckley, Brad Nowell, Brian Jones…the list will not stop. I once asked my stepdad about his heros and he said “all of my hero’s are dead.” This is becomming true for me. It seems that the greatest artists are flawed…and it may be why we all love them so much.
    And on that April morning I cried for someone that I did not know. As soon as I heard about Kurt I went to the local music store to by yet another Nirvana shirt…I am not sure what the significance of this was…but, I think that it was my way of feeling close to him (it seems silly looking back on it now). I remember being angry, and confused…but, most of all sad that someone whose words meant so much to me took his own life.Sad that I would someday be oder than Kurt was when he died…because, he bailed before finding out what our generation would become. So much has happened to me since then…but, I will always remember it. Because as I sat in front of the television that day I started to grow up for the first time.

    All in all is all we are

    Corey Lynn


    Anonymous — February 15, 2008 @ 4:06 pm

  • I have always been sad about Kurt Cobain’s untimely death, but was never so moved about his life until I saw “About a Son.” Through interviews and brilliantly supportive visuals, where Cobain is open and at ease, the movie sheds light on how down-to-earth, eloquent, and perceptive he was about the world around him. Thanks to this work, I could go beyond my previous perception of him as a troubled, brooding impressive artist and now relate to him as a normal, creative, loving, humorous person who had challenges like all of us, but sadly, lived with a torturous physical pain that he could no longer endure. Thank you for letting me share my feelings on your blog. It was also nice to hear the music from the movie.

    chetan — February 23, 2008 @ 1:07 pm

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Bio Pic Name: Heather Browne
Location: Colorado, originally by way of California
Giving context to the torrent since 2005.

"I love the relationship that anyone has with music: because there's something in us that is beyond the reach of words, something that eludes and defies our best attempts to spit it out. It's the best part of us, probably, the richest and strangest part..."
—Nick Hornby, Songbook
"Music has always been a matter of energy to me, a question of Fuel. Sentimental people call it Inspiration, but what they really mean is Fuel."
—Hunter S. Thompson

Mp3s are for sampling purposes, kinda like when they give you the cheese cube at Costco, knowing that you'll often go home with having bought the whole 7 lb. spiced Brie log. They are left up for a limited time. If you LIKE the music, go and support these artists, buy their schwag, go to their concerts, purchase their CDs/records and tell all your friends. Rock on.

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