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Kurt Cobain About A Son review

How well do people know their favorite rock stars? When an artist gets to the level of world wide fame there is a lot of money and quite possibly several careers invested in that person. The famous entertainer at that rare height is a very valuable commodity to many and thus the image of that person being projected through media is most likely carefully managed by a team of professionals. Even if that is not the case often fans choose to see and hear what they want to believe about their stars. On Friday June 15 I attended the Washington, DC area premiere of the documentary Kurt Cobain About A Son at the SilverDocs film festival in Silver Spring, Maryland. The film, directed by AJ Schnack, reveals the deceased Nirvana front man to be a talented artist haunted by many demons and also a rather ordinary individual. In the post-screening discussion one of the audience members strongly disagreed with the suggestion that Kurt Cobain was an ordinary man. This reaction will no doubt be repeated many times in the months to come, as About A Son gets seen by more and more people. Many will love it, some will hate it, others will get a new understanding about Cobain and also about growing up troubled in America in the 1970's and '80's.

I have only seen About A Son once and I believe I need to see it at least two or more times in order to fully take in the wealth of information that the movie offers. The movie is made up of two key elements: Cobain speaking with music journalist Micheal Azerrad set to images of places and people in three Washington state cities: Aberdeen, Olympia and Seattle - the three cities that witnessed the unfolding of much of Cobain's life. Cobain says things that are at times troubling, at times amusing, and at other times seem like relatively ordinary observations. When I heard certain sections of Cobain's conversations, I lost track of the images and started thinking about how he might have come to the conclusion that he just shared. At other times the images were so strikingly beautiful I only half-heard what Cobain was saying. After a couple of viewings I may be familiar enough with the movie in order to experience it as a smooth, unified whole. A third and important element of the movie is the soundtrack: made up of music that Cobain listened to and also of music by contemporary musicians that, according to director Schnack, are exploring some of the aspects of life that Cobain explored with his own music. It is possible to imagine that segments of About A Son - a certain sight from a Washington state city set to a certain piece of music - may be replicating an image or memory from Cobain's own mind.

The Kurt Cobain story that we learn from About A Son is the story of a boy growing up in a logging town that is hostile to anyone who seems different, then of a young adult who discovers punk rock as a source of validation and a possible career path, then of a man who is pursuing living and music making in a bohemian community and finally of a world famous and wealthy and yet very troubled artist/entertainer who is also a young father. What were the things that Cobain was against? What were the things that were causing him pain? Cobain said he pretty much hated everyone around him when he was young and also that his body was a constant source of pain for him. Depression was also said to be a constant companion of Cobain from a very young age. At a late point in the film we hear Cobain talking about his decision to work on hating people less. Another thing that troubled Cobain was the way that some journalists were treating him, the band, and his family. The pieces of conversations that make up the main audio track of About A Son were originally recorded late night, I believe Schnack said the conversations happened between 12 AM and 4 AM, during the course of several months, and they offer intimate snapshots of an individual dealing with disappointments, successes, failures and pain.

Cobain appears to have been an intense observer of his own world; his life and his surroundings. A couple of observations that stood out for me were Cobain's concern with the rise of violence in America and the rise of the number of divorces in Aberdeen when he was young. Also his criticism of bands/artists that are content with playing just to their own small bohemian cliques and are not concerned with wider fame or engaging the wider world with their art/music made me think about stances he may have adopted, rejected, and quite possibly adopted again regarding punk rock vs. fame and wealth.

At one point in the movie Cobain says that all he wanted was to have his own apartment and play in a band, travel the country playing music. Then he says that he was able to achieve those goals with Nirvana and that it made him happy. Even though next he goes on to list the problems that he was having with the later, wider success of Nirvana, it is nice to know that a very troubled and very talented young person from a logging town who ultimately met a violent end was able to experience moments of significant happiness during his brief life. Even though Schnack did not express it through words on June 15, there is a lot about the life of Kurt Cobain, as reflected in About A Son, that rise beyond the stuff of ordinary existence and is capable of strongly affecting others.

Kurt Cobain About A Son is a movie loaded with many worthwhile things - including a classic American story of drive for success while battling many inner and outer obstacles - and of achieving a level of success and fame unfamiliar to many who live in a logging town; also a story with a deep layer of anger, loss, disappointment, and frustration. The movie is also a wildly creative, original, and beautiful portrait of a talented artist who captured the admiration and the imagination of millions of young people around the world.

- Sujewa


Pamela said…
Really nice article, SE! And yes, I agree that the film (one of my recent favorites, among many beautiful nonfiction pieces) deserves multiple viewings--I saw it for the third time at Silverdocs, and love it more every time I watch and listen to it.

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