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Kurt Cobain hasn’t been a stranger to docs and biopics, but he’s nowhere to be seen in Kurt Cobain About a Son. That may not be what director AJ Schnack originally intended, but it’s easy to understand why Cobain’s widow, Courtney Love, didn’t open the Nirvana archives for the project. After several films trading in martyrdom and scandal—including one that suggested that she ordered the assassination of her famously tormented husband—Love has likely had her fill of Cobain movies.
Left to his own devices, Schnack did something that’s clever and yet fairly pointless: He took excerpts from the 25 hours of interviews Michael Azerrad did in ’92 and ’93 for his book Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana and matched them to new footage of Cobain’s old haunts. The film is divided into sections named for the three Washington-state cities where Cobain spent his 27 years: Aberdeen, the lumber-industry town where he grew up; Olympia, the arty college burg where Nirvana coalesced; and Seattle, where the band moved after going pro. The interview extracts, arranged in a roughly chronological order, are illustrated by views of each place, some clearly pertinent and others apparently not. (There is, for example, footage of the new Seattle Central Library, which opened a decade after Cobain’s 1994 suicide.)
None of the film’s music was made by Cobain and/or his Nirvana bandmates, but the songs are well chosen. Cobain’s early-teen enthusiasms like Queen, Cheap Trick, and Creedence Clearwater Revival lead to ultra-indie inspirations like Bad Brains, Big Black, and Half Japanese, and then to such peers like Beat Happening, the Melvins, and Mudhoney. Indeed, the songs may constitute a more telling biography than Cobain’s comments, which offer a familiar tally of conflicts, both external and internal. As a boy, the future grunge star hated cops, and his enemies list grew to include journalists, homophobes, and his absent father.
The time the movie spends contemplating Cobain’s early years explains Kurt Cobain About a Son’s title, but Schnack doesn’t reveal anything new with his tracking shots of the performer’s former haunts. The bulk of the information conveyed in the film comes from the voice-over excerpts, which are simply the raw material for a tome Nirvana’s biggest fans should have already read. A more fitting name would be Kurt Cobain Talks to His Aliterate Fans—this is a movie for people who would rather watch superfluous shots of piled-up logs than open a book.