A Definitive Ranking of Every Kurt Cobain Movie Ever Made*
by Isabel Slone
If John Waters is the Pope of Trash, Kurt Cobain is the Pope of Teen Angst. My early punk days were spent loading quarters into the high school cafeteria jukebox just to hear the opening chords of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Years later, I forwent Klimt’s “The Kiss” as my dorm room poster of choice in favor of a black-and-white photo of Kurt Cobain pensively smoking a cigarette and holding his guitar.
Nirvana is an important part of the starter pack for entry-level punks. Nevermind is one of the best-selling records of all time, the extreme popularity a testament to it’s relatability. But rather than being labeled a “sellout,” Kurt Cobain remains an enigmatic figurehead to every upcoming generation of teens, in no small part because of his tragic suicide in 1994.
We still search for deeper insight into the man who once said that “People don’t deserve to know. It’s none of their goddamn business what my personal life is like now. Fuck them, they don’t need to know everything about me.” And yet there have been countless movies, documentaries, books, and suspicious homemade videos eager to analyze Kurt Cobain’s legacy.
As someone who has read at least 9 different books on grunge and bought the Kurt Cobain Journals from Urban Outfitters, what I am trying to say here is that I am most definitely qualified to rank this list.
*Note: After multiple attempts to scrape an illegal download link off the web, as well as IRL trips to indie video stores across Toronto, a watchable copy of The Vigil (for Kurt Cobain) — a 1998 road trip movie about a group of teens who hail from the same city where Marilyn Manson was recently punched in the face in a Denny’s travel to Kurt Cobain’s memorial in Seattle — still eludes me. As such, it has not been included in the ranking.
9. Soaked in Bleach (2014)
Not an official documentary, but a five-minute trailer advertising what promises to be an explosive investigation into the real cause of Kurt Cobain’s death. It casts Tom Grant, a private investigator who looks like a high school football coach, as a shadowy, film noir character on a Sisyphean mission to find the truth. The film seems set to prove that Courtney Love is actually the bedraggled beauty queen on the cover of Hole’s Live Through This, instead of a living, breathing woman who probably did not kill her husband. The URL advertising the film’s upcoming release in 2014 is not at all promising.
8. Kurt and Courtney (1998)
Kurt and Courtney traffics in the lurid theories surrounding Cobain’s death, including testimony from an oafish thrash metal musician named El Duce (lyrics include; “You are my personal whore,” sung while wearing an executioner’s mask) who claims Courtney offered him $50,000 to “whack” Kurt. Director Nick Broomfield is the ultimate hypocrite, complaining about Courtney trying to control the narrative of the story while asking obvious leading questions to every one of his interview subjects (e.g. “I hear Kurt was a very loving father…”). The movie is virulently anti-Courtney, interviewing her father Hank Harrison who calls her “deranged” and a Rod Stewart doppelganger ex-boyfriend who goes on a tirade claiming she “stole his career.” Based on this movie, it’s incredibly hard to believe that Nick Broomfield is the director of at least thirty-one more reputable films.
7. 1991: The Year Punk Broke (1992)
The film begins with footage of Kim Gordon dancing with Kurt Cobain on railroad tracks while Thurston Moore recites extremely bad stream-of-consciousness poetry. (Actual line: “fucky wucky.”) For all of the gritty original concert footage of bands like Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth, the 1990s nostalgia trip is generally ruined by Thurston Moore acting like a dick. (Imagine him describing how he wants to douse his vomit in lighter fluid, set it on fire, then throw it at the audience to an unsuspecting foreign journalist.) Kurt Cobain isn’t a major player in the film, but his volatility is on display in a few scenes. After greeting Sonic Youth backstage, and telling them they were “really neat,” he douses the band in a bottle of unidentified liquid.
6. The Last 48 Hours of Kurt Cobain (2007)
A fairly straightforward documentary that does exactly what its title suggests. Filmed in typical BBC documentary-style, there’s plenty of wide-angle landscape shots that highlight the bleak shittiness of Kurt’s hometown of Aberdeen, and a British accent voiceover that makes everything sound very dry and serious. There are plenty of interviews with people who knew Kurt, but the best ones come from those who didn’t. The baffling Seattle housewife identified only as “Melinda” is able to recite every detail surrounding Kurt’s death from memory, and “Brant,” an Eminem lookalike with a chinstrap, identifies himself as a member of the Church of Kurt Cobain. The documentary is interesting, but plagued by a soundtrack of terrible cover songs, including Paul Anka’s schlocky, dad-swing version of Smells Like Teen Spirit.
5. Last Days (2005)
Last Days follows around an uncanny Kurt lookalike played by Michael Pitt, who appears to have lost all complex motor skills. It’s mumblecore in its most literal sense; “Kurt” speaks no more than 10 words of discernable dialogue, while the rest of the movie is held up by snippets of mundane conversation that is self-aware enough to be hilarious. (Imagine Harmony Korine as a chubby nerd talking about playing “Dungeons and Dragons” with Jerry Garcia.) Kim Gordon is a godsend in her cameo role as a would-be interventionist. The costume designer deserves significant props for outfitting “Kurt” in recognizable items from his real life: a pair of mod sunglasses, a red striped shirt, and the nubby mohair cardigan from MTV: Unplugged in New York.
4. About a Son (2006)
This is the story of Kurt Cobain in his own words, gleaned from interviews he did with Michael Azerrad for the book Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana. With only audio files to go on, the rest of the movie is just landscape images and “Humans of New York”-style street portraits of random citizens in Washington State. The movie is saved from pretentious artiness by a wholly unexpected classic rock soundtrack of Queen, Cheap Trick, and Creedence Clearwater Revival. Kurt’s acerbic wit carries the film; it’s somehow both funny and tragic when he admits “I’ve been manic depressive since I was 9 years old,” and just plain funny when he calls journalists “the evilest most uncaring fuckheads” on the planet.
3. Stupid Club (1994)
A heavy and grief-stricken mini-doc shot on April 10th, 1994 when a crowd of Kurt apostles gathered at the Seattle Center to mourn his loss. The kids affected by Kurt’s death are sad and genuine; most are feeling the loss on a deeply personal level. Eventually, grief devolves into anger as Courtney Love reads Kurt’s suicide note aloud and goads the crowd into shouting “asshole,” and the kids start to resent the police presence at the fringes of the memorial. Generation X may be remembered as a cynical bunch, but this doc suggests otherwise, showing 1990s kids with a lot of heart.
2. Montage of Heck (2015)
Kurt’s usually reticent family finally opens up to director Brett Morgen, and resultingly we are rewarded with a previously unseen treasure trove of Kurt Cobain marginalia: home videos, childhood fridge art, and notebook scribbles that have been animated into life. Watching the movie is like riding along with the inner machinations of Kurt’s brain, and it’s both joyful and scary. Finally, Courtney gets her due — in Kurt’s own words, “our combined fusion bends spoons.” At times this documentary feels too intimate, like maybe this stuff should’ve been kept private. Still, this is the closest we’re going to get to a definitive Kurt Cobain documentary until someone gets Tobi Vail on the record.
1. Hype! (1996)
The exclamation mark is apt, because this is a fucking exciting documentary. It’s more about the incubation of grunge music as a movement than a Kurt Cobain fap fest. Lesser known bands like Monomen and the Fastbacks get their due, and bands I’d never even heard of like Blood Circus and Coffin Break get stage time too. There’s footage of Kurt singing an early version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and sounding positively feral. This film really captures the dark, base, crotchal urge of a going to a punk show, which is why we’re all so into Nirvana to begin with.
Isabel Slone is a Toronto-based writer and ex-fashion blogger. Her work has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Hazlitt, WORN Fashion Journal and more.