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)
ABOUT A SON TRAILER
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.