Pity the fool hired to scribble the DVD-jacket copy for Kurt Cobain: About a Son — the film sounds horrific on paper. It's a 92-minute experimental documentary about the endlessly lionized “alternative” icon that doesn't include a guitar lick of his music, a testimonial from anyone personally acquainted with the man, or even Cobain's likeness — that is, until the final scene. Plus, the film's director is A.J. Schnack, whose most notable credit is a rock doc about They Might Be Giants. It's like entrusting James Dean's legacy to a Don Knotts biographer. Never mind that the producer is fond of saying, “The whole idea of this film is not to look back at Kurt, it's to look into Kurt.” Rape me, my friend.
In truth, producer Michael Azerrad was Kurt's friend — at least as much as Truman Capote was a confidante of Perry Smith's. In the early '90s, Azerrad extensively interviewed the generational lodestar for the authorized biography Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana, a project that left the New York–based reporter with more than 20 hours of Cobain on tape. Schnack, who'd met Azerrad while working on his aforementioned TMBG debut, edited the audio into a kind of narration. About a Son is essentially a dead rock star talking about his life for an hour and a half, and — here, jacket-blurbers! — it's deeply moving.
If Cobain's death is the 9/11 of the modern-rock canon — an epochal tragedy that recklessly opportunistic minds have flattened into a sad, one-dimensional cartoon — then Gus Van Sant's tedious and arrogant Last Days is the World Trade Center of the posthumous Kurt industry: a fictionalized piece of shit by a big-name director. (And Nick Broomfield's Kurt & Courtney is the Fahrenheit 9/11.) “I started to feel like Woody Allen in Annie Hall when he's waiting in that line, listening to that guy pontificate about Marshall McLuhan,” explains Azerrad, who's thanked in the liner notes to Nirvana's In Utero. “I kept hearing people argue about Kurt, talk authoritatively about Kurt, make these bombastic statements about Kurt that were completely inaccurate portrayals of the guy I knew. I finally felt like it was time to let Kurt talk for himself.”
Schnack built the film around Kurt's words, shooting contemporary scenes of the Pacific Northwest to correspond factually. When the Washington State native references his father's lumber mill, there's a logging montage; it's recent footage of the actual place where Cobain's dad worked. “I didn't want to identify the locations and say, 'Yes, this is what he's talking about — his dad's real office!'” says Schnack, in Bryant Park with Azerrad one recent afternoon. Subtle, yes, but there are times you're left wondering just who and what the faces and places are. “I guess I thought people would just assume that of course we went [to] that length. I'm kind of surprised when I read something where they think we went to a random lumber mill. Nope — actual lumber mill where his dad worked. And that's Kurt's actual Olympia apartment. And those are real Aberdeen residents.”
But the footage isn't the star — the voice is. There wasn't YouTube in the early '90s, so Cobain's speech isn't a familiar part of his mythology. Hearing him expound while eating cereal or sucking on a smoke, it's easy to forget that this is the voice of the “Gen-X anthem” for apathetic kids. “When we were making decisions about the film, looking at cuts, my mantra was, 'Don't break the spell, don't break the spell,'” Azerrad says. “It's supposed to be this immersive, dreamlike, associative experience.”
Azerrad caught his subject at a rather poignant moment. Frances Bean had just been born, grunge was a juggernaut, and Kurt was contemplative, candid, and lucid — able to reflect on the factors that would inevitably kill him. “Drugs are bad for you, and they will fuck you up,” he says late in the film. “I just knew that I would eventually stop doing them. Being married and having a baby is a really good incentive. If I would've kept doing drugs, I would have lost everything.” This line is truly devastating. Likewise when Azerrad asks, “Is yours a sad story?” Kurt responds, “No, not really. It's nothing that's amazing or anything new, for sure.”
Here Kurt Cobain, the supernatural songwriting god who discovered that the only true fountain of youth is death, is transmogrified into a mere mortal. This is About a Son's singular, objective, and real accomplishment. “Every once in a while at a screening, in the Q&A afterwards, someone will say, 'Did Courtney kill Kurt?'” Azerrad says with a sigh. “The film has not reached that person. And that's disappointing. But those people, there's nothing you can do — they're like the Lyndon LaRouche 9/11 conspiracy theorists. You're never going to get to them.” Oh well, whatever, nevermind.