Like the unlamented Sundance fave and box office failure Zoo, director AJ Schnack’s About a Son is another in the new wave of low-key, imagistic documentaries that substitute poeticized stream-of-consciousness collages for the shopworn documentary tropes of on-camera interviews and archival footage. Cinematographer Wyatt Troll has been tasked with creating what is essentially a pictorial soundtrack, filled with artfully composed shots of places (Aberdeen, Seattle) and objects (guitars, but interestingly no guns or syringes) associated with the suicidal grunge rocker Kurt Cobain. Schnack combines these images with uninflected video portraits of random people who live or work or play music where Cobain used to, in essence trying to show Cobain’s world the way it might have looked to him, give or take a couple of decades. The result is competently somnambulant; depending on a viewer’s tolerance for the Errol Morris school of synesthesia filmmaking, About a Son offers either sumptuous visual surrealism or the cinematic equivalent of a slow bullet drilling through a slackened forehead.
The real problem with the piece, though, is an unexpected one: The narrator seems untrustworthy, despite the fact that the narration is by Cobain himself. Indeed, aside from a few interview questions, a one-line cameo from Courtney Love and rock vocals from a bunch of bands who aren’t Nirvana, Cobain speaking is the only human sound heard for all of About a Son ’s 96 minutes. Cobain’s voice itself is a shock—thin and nasally and dripping with disdain, but cocksure for all of that—and he goes over the event structure of his own life and that of his band with enough specificity that About a Son starts to seem like some sort of an intentional last will and testament.
And everything he says here has got to be accurate, right? Because Cobain’s telling it himself, and he lived it, and he’s dead, and anyone knows that any entertainer who dies tragically and young becomes an oracle with white light shining behind his head who speaks nothing but un-amalgamated Truth.
Well, no, actually. Caveat emptor. Cobain’s mercurial personality included not only a genius poet boy but also a junkie and a slacker , both of whom were perfectly capable of telling the convenient lie, and once he got famous his hatred for the press and the star-making machinery that put him on top became legendary. By the latter portion of his career, Cobain was less and less likely to be fully honest when someone stuck a microphone in front of him. The most notorious example is probably the January 1994 Rolling Stone cover interview he gave to David Fricke touting his sobriety and wealth and the happiness of his marriage. The magazine took Cobain at his word and published what was essentially a piece of fiction accompanied by a cover shot of Cobain and band wearing Wall Street suit-and-tie business wear with a banner headline reading “NIRVANA: Success Doesn’t Suck.” Five months later, Fricke was apologizing for the piece in print, and Rolling Stone was running Cobain’s obituary on its cover. Turned out success actually did suck—murderously so.
Two months before Fricke’s notorious “Success” piece, another Rolling Stone contributor named Michael Azerrad published a band biography called Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana. The history of Azerrad’s book project is an interesting one; according to Entertainment Weekly, at the time of Come As You Are ’s writing, Cobain was vigorously suing an earlier pair of Nirvana biographers, and as part of that action he actively went looking for someone to tell the “real” story to.
After being turned down by entertainment journalist Gina Arnold, the band settled on Azerrad, who scored 25 hours of interviews with Kurt Cobain as part of his research. The entire narration of About a Son is gleaned from those authorized interview sessions, and based on the evidence, Cobain put on quite a performance. Oscillating between self-hatred and an ingrained scorn for pretty much everyone who isn’t him, the rock star simultaneously displays a desire to paint himself as a classic misunderstood rock-‘n’-roll outcast and a man superior to every one of his musical and personal peers. Even Cobain’s most admirable traits—for example, his contempt for racism, homophobia and sexism—get expressed in unappealing anecdotal ways, as further manifestations of how much better Kurt Cobain always was than all those hicks life has forced him to endure.
Cobain is also allowed to deliver bromides about the transformative impact of his marriage and the birth of his child, as well as the usual hop-head falsities about his heroin use (it’s medicinal, and anyway, it’s all in the past)—all of which his subsequent self-murder gave the lie to. In retrospect, it’s easy to see what was going on with Cobain when he sat for these conversations; his act was the classic one of insecurity and self-loathing masquerading as belligerence, and it ended tragically, in what may be the single most nihilistic act of self-murder in all of pop culture, where self-murder and nihilism come cheap. When Azerrad interviewed him—after the breakthrough Nevermind album and therefore very late in the Nirvana saga—Cobain was alternately kidding himself and cynically packaging his experiences for “the fans.” The context for understanding the truth about Cobain and Nirvana can’t be provided by an unbroken commentary from Kurt in his “... you, I’m a star” phase, especially when presented with nothing to accompany it but the willfully blank visual syntax of an old Richard Avedon fashion pictorial.
Cobain’s suicide is one of those cultural light-bulb moments, and everyone retains his or her own impression from it. Mine is of Cobain’s subsequently published suicide note, scrawled in penmanship that seems to disintegrate as it travels down the page and draws closer to the abyss. That malignant artifact wasn’t addressed to Cobain’s wife, although it’s full of references to her, and it wasn’t addressed to his daughter, although it ends heartbreakingly with Cobain telling his one-year-old baby girl she’ll be happier without him and then writing “I love you” twice in big block letters. No, when Cobain tried to find someone he could trust with his last tortured thoughts, the person he came up with was his imaginary childhood friend, and so “To Boddah” is the way the first line of the letter reads.
The aloneness and despair in that gesture isn’t all Kurt Cobain should be remembered for, but it certainly belongs in the conversation. So do interviews with his fellow band members and others who might be able to illuminate and challenge some of the pronouncements Cobain made to a journalist he once recruited to tell the story of his life. About a Son is essential viewing for what remains of the Nirvana/Kurt Cobain cult, interesting but more problematic fare for everyone else. —
Cast: Kurt Cobain
Director: AJ Schnack
Producers: Shirley Moyers, Noah Koshbin and Chris Green
Running time: 96 min.
Release date: October 3, 2007 NY, October 5 LA