By Jeff Walsh
"Kurt Cobain: About A Son" (now playing in select theaters) is sort of an oral autobiography played over a Pacific Northwest travelogue. While Kurt narrates his growing up, interest in music, and reaction to fame, we see scenes of the cities he talks about. It is definitely an interesting presentation, in that there is no title up front mentioning Cobain, barely any photos of him during the entire film, save for some live concerts where he's hard to make out, and only a handful of portraits at the very end. Theater-hoppers who show up to this movie late won't know what the hell's going on, with a disembodied voice talking about growing up, while visuals of a lumber yard and other assorted segments show underneath.
I'll come right out and state upfront that I am a huge Nirvana fan. I heard Nevermind when it debuted on the local college radio station, rushed out to buy it the next day, and bought the only copy the store had in stock, a month or so before it would start getting airplay. I got to see them live two nights in one week on their In Utero tour, the week before they recorded their famous Unplugged set. I even have a Kurt Cobain "action figure" on my Amazon wishlist. So, when I heard this movie was edited from more than 25 hours of audio interviews Cobain did with Michael Azerrad for his book "Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana," I was more interested in when an audiobook of those interviews would be made available than in the 90-minute movie.
Nirvana was atop the charts when I started to come out, so it was doubly impressive that Cobain talked so openly and supportively about homosexuality. He appeared on the cover of The Advocate, and wore a dress to host MTV's metal show, Headbanger's Ball, saying it made sense to wear a dress to a ball. Part of that was a reaction to Cobain's discomfort with some of the audience championing the band who looked like the same types of kids who would have been beating him up a few years earlier. In the liner notes to their Incesticide album, Cobain wrote: "If you're a racist, a sexist, or a homophobe, we don't want you to buy our records." In the film, Cobain mentions being gay in a segment on how isolated he was in high school, not really fitting into any of the normal groups:
"Luckily, I found a gay friend who basically saved me from wanting to kill myself half the time. Apparently, everyone in high school knew he was gay, and they just didn't bother to tell me or I just didn't bother to notice until he decided to make a pass at me one night and I just flatly told him that I wasn't gay but I'd still be his friend. After that, I just started to realize that people were looking at me even more peculiarly than usual and then I started getting harassed, especially in gym class. They felt threatened because they were naked and I was supposedly gay, so they either better cover up their penises or punch me... or both. But after that, I started being proud of the fact that I was gay, even though I wasn't. I really enjoyed the conflict."
The documentary really tries to paint a personal story of Cobain, it is actually rare to hear him mention song titles or anything else about the songs, albums, grunge, or tours. It is more how his parents' divorce affected him, how he found music, drugs, and how fame affected him. It was also interesting to hear Cobain directly address the topic of publishing rights to Nirvana, and how he didn't think they should be distributed equally with his band mates, which was the source of some legal wrangling after his death.
As an artist, Cobain is a personal hero of mine and someone to whom I look up to as an example of how to function creatively (hence me wanting his action figure on my writing desk). As a person, he's a cautionary tale. Seeing him live in concert, knowing how much he likely didn't even want to be there, he was still impossible to look away from. He had, and still has, a certain magic about him.
That said, "About A Son" seems like something for the die-hard fans. I'm not sure what the solution would be, as it would seem cheesy if the same audio was playing over all pictures of Kurt zooming around the screen with the Ken Burns Effect. But, to be honest, I think I'd have the same reaction to this if I had listened to it on my iPod. Cobain is the show here, and ultimately video of a working lumberyard doesn't really add much to the overall experience, even with music from other grunge acts and Vaselines and Bowie tunes that Nirvana covered in concert spliced in between segments.
So, if you're a die-hard fan, check for showtimes, trailers, and more info on the movie's official website. If you're not yet, their Unplugged performance was just released on DVD last week, and is totally worth checking out. You can also read his Advocate interview here.