DVD Review: Kurt Cobain - About A Son
by Rachel Jaffe
Published: February 20, 2008
Kurt Cobain is an icon of American music. You know him. He's that guy that fronted the band Nirvana. He's that guy that brought us grunge music, including the mega-hit "Smells Like Teen Spirit." He's that guy who had the volatile marriage with Courtney Love. He's that guy that used heroin to cover up stomach pains. And, sadly, in April 1994 Cobain became that guy who killed himself with a shotgun.
But as often happens with celebrity, the more Cobain became known as that guy, the less he was known as just a guy. Enter the innovative documentary, "Kurt Cobain - About A Son," which attempts to provide a glimpse into the world as Kurt Cobain saw it.
The typical place to begin a biopic of a dead rock star would be with interviews of family and friends, and maybe some archival footage. "About A Son" has next to none of that. Instead, it arose out of over 25 hours of audio interviews that journalist Michael Azerrad (author of the book Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana) conducted with Cobain. Director AJ Schnack selected portions of those interviews representing three phases of Cobain's life, in three different cities -- his childhood home of Aberdeen, Washington; his young adulthood in Olympia, Washington; and his career success in Seattle, Washington. He then paired the audiotape of Cobain's voice with newly shot footage to augment Cobain's monologues. Sometimes the footage is a direct illustration, such as showing a lumber mill that Cobain played in as a child. Other times, the connection is more associative than illustrative, such as showing the faces of people in a city to provide a "facial geography." Other footage was selected because it tied into Cobain's life, even when it's not explicitly mentioned in Cobain's audio; there is footage of high school wrestlers included, for example, because Cobain himself wrestled.
A third dimension is the musical track applied in the film. The rights to Nirvana's music have already been a source of much litigation, which is a practical reason why no Nirvana music is heard. But this is also a film about the personal side of Cobain, so it makes sense to include music that he listened to, not that he created. The soundtrack provides various artists that he listened to, such as Queen, the Butthole Surfers, and the Melvins, and melds them with a dreamy original score created by Ben Gibbard (Death Cab for Cutie) and Nirvana producer Steve Fisk.
The goal of combining these three elements -- Cobain's words, the Washington imagery, and the soundtrack -- is to provide a glimpse of Cobain's personal world. As Azerrad says in a featurette, "You can convey things literally, and then there are the things that are between the lines. And when you show a sleepy shot of Aberdeen at dawn, with the huge pine trees and the dewy air and the kind of rural feeling of the town, and you hear Kurt's kind of Aberdeen twang, and maybe you hear the music that he was listening to at the time, and you experience all three of those things together, I think it's going to add up to more than the sum of its parts."
It's an unusual approach to a documentary, and I applaud the effort. I don't know that it's entirely successful. The film counts on the viewer already having a basic knowledge of the events of Cobain's life, which detracts from its universality. While some of Cobain's interviews are fascinating, others, frankly, are unfocused and dull without the type of narrative shaping that external explication would provide. Many images are beautiful and effective, but others would have more power if the viewer knew why they were included -- whether it's because they truly are the location discussed, or they have relevance to some other part of Cobain's life, or maybe they're simply provided to evoke a spirit or a contrast. In his commentary on selected scenes, Schnack remarks, "We're hoping that in the totality of everything you've seen, even if you're not sure why the post office is there or the janitor's closet is there, that it gives you a sense of place and who Kurt was."
About A Son: The view from Kurt Cobain's home.
I've already referenced two bonus features of the DVD, and I think that's significant. I had a greater appreciation of the film, its techniques, and its craftsmanship after having absorbed both the 13.5-minute featurette called "The Voices Behind About A Son" and the 17.5-minute director's commentary on selected scenes. (The third extra feature, "On Location: Scouting Video to Scene Comparison," was an 8.5-minute unnarrated comparison of rough footage shot while scouting locations and final edited footage, which was not terribly informative.) While on first viewing of "About A Son" I could admire the lovely water-front footage near the beginning of the film, the footage was more meaningful and moving after learning that this was the view from Cobain's Seattle home.
For fans of Kurt Cobain, this movie is a must see. It provides a singular view on the icon's life. For fans of documentaries, this film is also significant. Its unusual approach to biography, the time-lapse techniques that echo the classic 1982 film "Koyaanisqatsi," the use of images to evoke and not just to portray, and the lush cinematography should provoke lively discussion. For the rest of the world? The need to see this movie is not compelling, but I would still recommend it. For all it's flaws, it also has its own unique charms. And this DVD, with the accompanying bonus features, allows the casual viewer an even better opportunity to appreciate those charms than seeing the movie in a theater.