Attending the premiere of AJ Schack and Michael Azerrad’s Kurt doc About A Son was an awesome experience, but only part of that was based on the movie itself; hearing nothing but Kurt’s audio from interviews with Michael gradually revealed a fascinating portrait of the Nirvana icon, but having those words framed and contextualized by Azerrad in the post-screening Q&A made it all invaluable. Certainly recommend seeing the film, but it’s tough not to feel the Michael afterthoughts were essential to our enjoyment. So for those that won’t get that chance, here’s what we learned.
Yeah, we learned a lot. Okay…
Why call it About A Son? AJ explained after the screening: “Sure there are familial elements running through the film — he’s the son of two parents, he’s the parent of another child — but it’s more about bringing in this childhood element, telling that story … He always eschewed being a generational spokesman, but he never backed down from speaking to being the product of divorce, to gender violence, to homophobia, to these issues that meant something to people my age. It’s understanding him as a son of Aberdeen, of Washington, of America — of this American in the particular time of the ’70s and ’80s.”
For those that don’t know, the film’s features Kurt’s side of a year’s worth of interviews with Michael, conducted a year before Kurt committed suicide, in anticipation of Michael’s Cobain biography Come As You Are, set to video footage and pictures connecting to Cobain’s quotes. When you see a dilapidated house while Cobain talks about his first apartment in Olympia, they’re one and the same, etc. Interestingly, no pictures or footage of Nirvana (save a brief moment at the end), and no Nirvana music, either (more on that later).
Throughout, Kurt is lucid, insightful, and — most impressively — funny. (Great and revealing bit on being mistaken for gay when a youth because he hung out with a homosexual, and how jocks figured while he was around they’d have to either throw punches or hide their penises, or both, aparently. “But soon I became proud of being gay … even though I wasn’t. Because it helped me get closer to having an identity. It wasn’t like I was just an average nerd anymore.” You get the sense Kurt hated (and perhaps feared) nothing more than being “average.” He’s dry and matter-of-fact, but his thought process reveals a thoughtful guy, and one that was aware there were more depressing things than being the product of an all-American divorce. And how that fact itself probably only deepened his depression.
But again, the most illuminating parts of the night came when Michael spoke afterwards. He talked about how he was the first to draw from Kurt the elements of his troubled childhood, and to draw the connection between that time in his life and the screaming and violence in his music. That raised a fair question: Kurt talks openly about how all journalists “deserved to die,” yet clearly he had meaningful and intimate rapport with Cobain: Why did Michael think that was?
There was mutual intimidation before the pair met (“All I knew was the guitar-smashing banshee, and he was probably expecting the bespectacled rock journalist from the northeast”), but Azerrad and Kurt were surprised to find they had much in common: both had parents divorce when they were 10, both ran around the house as kids pretending to ride a motorcycle while listening to that Arlo Guthrie tune, both didn’t identify with jock-culture for being so small. “We had a lot in common … in a lot of ways,” Michael said with a suggestive expression, which then turned down a bit. “Looking at the film, I think about how I was able to overcome those problems with this equipment,” pointing to his body, “while he just wasn’t.”
Azerrad’s difficulty coming to terms with Kurt’s suicide until very recently is well documented, and it’s fascinating and emotional to see him speak about Kurt, a man he clearly felt a close kinship with, a love and respect for, but one with whom he’s still upset. When asked about footage depicting Seattle’s progression (once scene showed Band Of Horses playing, the evolution of the Seattle/Sub Pop scene, as it were), Michael said, “Seeing the images of how Seattle’s changed, the neighborhoods gone on, I think, ‘Kurt never got to see this.'” He paused, and his face became steely for a moment. “But that was his choice.”
As for the music in the film, it’s a mix of tunes and a somewhat ambient score composed by Steve Fisk and Ben Gibbard. As previously discussed, the movie contains no Nirvana music. Azerrad addressed that issue, saying, “One of the best ways to get to know someone is to make them a mixtape, and the mix of songs that appear in the film and on the soundtrack are very much what Kurt would put on his personal mixtape.”
The movie’s ultimate intent is the same as were Azerrad’s initial interviews with Kurt. Michael and Cobain sat to tell “the straight story” of Kurt’s life, to clear the air of false impressions at a time when court motions were being filed to take custody of Francis Bean from Kurt and Courtney. “There are so many lies about me,” Kurt would say. And for Michael, so much popular understanding of Kurt’s life rests disproportionately and unfairly on those last few turbulent, drugged-out, and suicidal months. “But the funny, lucid, thoughtful Kurt you hear in this movie — that was the real Kurt for 26 of his years. People need to know that.”
The Kurt Cobain: About A Son soundtrack is out now on Barsuk (tracklist below). Also worth noting, Nirvana’s classic Unplugged performance finally will be available on DVD 11/20 via Universal.
01 “Overture” – Steve Fisk and Ben Gibbard
02 Audio: Never Intended
03 “Motorcycle Song” – Arlo Guthrie
04 “Eye Flys” – The Melvins
05 Audio: Punk Rock
06 “Banned in DC” – Bad Brains
07 “Up Around the Bend” – Creedence Clearwater Revival
08 “Put Some Sugar on It” – Half Japanese
09 “Son of a Gun” – The Vaselines
10 “Graveyard” – Butthole Surfers
11 Audio: Hardcore Was Dead
12 “Owner’s Lament” – Scratch Acid
13 “Touch Me I’m Sick” – Mudhoney
14 “Audio: Car Radio”
15 “The Passenger” – Iggy Pop
16 “The Borgeois Blues” – Leadbelly
17 “New Orleans Instrumental No. 1″ – R.E.M.
18 “Audio: The Limelight”
19 “The Man Who Sold the World” – David Bowie
20 “Museum” – Mark Lanegan
21 “Indian Summer” – Ben Gibbard