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Kurt Cobain: Moments That Shook Music review – even 30 years on, his death seems utterly tragic
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Kurt Cobain: Moments That Shook Music review – even 30 years on, his death seems utterly tragic

Unfathomably, for those of us who remember it, Kurt Cobain died 30 years ago this month, at the age of 27. Kurt Cobain: Moments That Shook Music has been scheduled as the centrepiece for an evening of programming that celebrates Nirvana’s music and legacy, but the emphasis of the documentary itself is firmly on Cobain killing himself and the days surrounding his death. It uses archive video of news reports and amateur footage from people attending a vigil held in his memory, in a Seattle park, just days after his body was found. There is no Nirvana music, other than their covers of other people’s songs.

Presumably this is a rights issue, and no fault of the film-makers, but the absence of the band’s original music does highlight the documentary’s singular focus. It spends less than five minutes on the astonishing, world-dominating success that Nirvana achieved in just a few short years – and, for Cobain, the concomitant dread that seems to have accompanied that – but, at the beginning, it does contextualise them as a band concisely. There is an old Reddit thread about how 1991’s Nevermind was released closer to the Beatles’ Love Me Do than to today, and this is a stark reminder of how long ago it was that Nirvana were the biggest band in the world. We see footage of Tiananmen Square, of President George HW Bush talking about the menace of crack cocaine. There is a news report about the band’s second album, Nevermind, knocking Michael Jackson’s Dangerous off the top of the Billboard charts. It is all bookended by a short, sweet interview with Cobain, conducted in the summer before he died, in which he reflects on marriage, love and being a father.

But other than that interview, Cobain is largely absent: the moment that shook music, for this film, is not his life and work, but his death. Fair enough, I suppose, if that is the brief. His death was shocking, and it was tragic, and it was global news. At one point – and this is about to be a very 90s sentence – we discover that the day after Cobain’s body was found, Bill Clinton asked Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder whether he should give an address to the nation. Vedder advised against it. What the film does suggest is that perhaps we have become more empathic, as a people. There is a clear difference of tone in the news reports of the time, which are often delivered with a sensationalist inflection; I suspect there would be much greater sensitivity around a young man killing himself now, no matter how famous he had been.

The documentary is at its best when showing interviews with Nirvana fans, who have gathered together to mourn and commemorate. A young woman named Mandy complains that most of the other people at the park that day aren’t really sad about Cobain at all. “People are going around with videocameras for their own private personal collection and I think it’s disgusting,” she says, dismissing them all as shallow.

What would Mandy make of this film? There is, perhaps inevitably, a morbid quality that makes it hard to watch. We all know what is coming, and it is tapped out in captions that march us through the story. In March 1994, Cobain cancels Nirvana’s European tour halfway through it. He overdoses in Rome. He goes to rehab in Los Angeles, absconds, goes missing in Seattle. An electrician, seen here giving an interview to a news station, describes finding Cobain’s body. There are police photographs of the scene, showing his wallet, his driving licence, his foot, his arm.

Cobain has passed into rock’n’roll legend, but he didn’t die in a plane crash, or bloated on the toilet. Even now, 30 years on, his death seems so particularly sad, so sorry, such a waste. While historically fascinating, the footage of the vigil includes a recording of his wife, Courtney Love, reading his suicide note to fans, interjecting, calling him an “asshole”, imploring the crowd to do the same. “I’m really sorry, you guys,” she says, voice racked with despair. “I don’t know what I could have done.” The rawness is almost too much. Like the photographs of parts of his body, I wondered what the point of watching it was, other than to satisfy morbid curiosity.

The documentary sticks to the brief, then, but the shock is contained: Kurt Cobain died, it was big news, and people mourned his loss. The legacy of the band is finally acknowledged at the end, but in sales, chart positions and awards; statistically, that is, not emotionally. I don’t wish to sound like a purist here, but I’m not sure that’s the best way to measure and commemorate how a band such as Nirvana really shook music.

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  • Kurt Cobain: Moments That Shook Music aired on BBC Two and is available on BBC iPlayer

Source: theguardian.com