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Sunday, June 3, 2007

He Should Have Been a Son

posted by on June 3 at 13:00 PM


The local music community was in full effect for last night’s Seattle premiere of AJ Schnack’s unique documentary, Kurt Cobain: About a Son. I spotted Mark Pickerel, Dave Meinert, and DJs from KEXP and KCMU (I was KCMU music director from 1989-1991).

Although we certainly didn’t plan it, my friends and I—Gillian G. Gaar, author of the 33-1/3 book Nirvana’s In Utero, and former Stranger scribe Tom Kipp—ended up sitting next to photographer Charles Peterson, musician/producer Steve Fisk, and author Michael Azerrad (Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana). A few seats away, I noticed Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard (who’s been performing “All Apologies” as part of his recent solo repertoire).

What I didn’t realize until after the screening was how many of these individuals were involved with the making of this impressionistic portrait. I knew that Cobain’s narration was taken from Azerrad’s early-1990s interviews with the Nirvana front man, but I didn’t know that Peterson provided the still photography (not just archival images, but according to the director, new images at a four-to-one ratio to the old) or that Fisk and Gibbard composed the minimalistic score. Schnack’s wife, producer Shirley Moyers [below], drowsy daughter, and key crew members were also in attendance.

As for the documentary, it wasn't what I was expecting. In fact, I was pretty disappointed for the first 20 minutes or so, but then it started to grow on me. Viewers should be warned—perhaps advised is the better word—that there’s no Nirvana music in About a Son. Not even lyrical references. Furthermore, there are no images of the subject until the very end. The film is as much a portrait of the Northwest as it is of Cobain (which means that his years in Los Angeles aren't covered). It's divided into three sections: Aberdeen, Olympia, and Seattle. Cobain's words are associated with specific places, like the high school he attended (and where he worked as
a janitor after he dropped out), clubs he played, and the like.


Since there's no Nirvana music, Schnack has filled the soundtrack with Fisk and Gibbard's instrumental score, which sounds like a more ambient Explosions in the Sky, and Cobain favorites, like Queen, Cheap Trick, Scratch Acid, and the Young Marble Giants. At the Q&A afterwards, the engaging Schnack (Gigantic: A Tale of Two Johns) was asked if he had any problems securing the rights to all this music. He said it took awhile (I think he said a year), but that he got what he wanted, especially once David Bowie and Iggy Pop signed on (Bowie also appears in and produced Stephen Kijak's fine SIFF selection Scott Walker: 30 Century Man). Before the film, Schnack announced that local label Barsuk would be releasing the soundtrack.

It goes without saying, but for those who want to know more about Kurt Cobain, there are any number of biographies from which to choose, including tomes by Azerrad, Charles R. Cross, Gina Arnold, and Everett True. About a Son doesn't assume to answer every question about this contradictory figure, but it brings Cobain to life in a way books and magazine articles can't. In other words, it isn't about facts and figures, but thoughts and impressions. I went in expecting to get bummed out, but the film neither depressed nor elated me. Like Gus Van Sant’s Last Days, it’s a somber, occasionally humorous experience. It neither exults nor demonizes its subject, but simply allows him to be who he was. I realize it’s presumptuous to say this, but I suspect Cobain would’ve given it his stamp of approval.


There are no more SIFF screenings of Kurt Cobain: About a Son. The film and soundtrack are set to be released this fall. I'll post more details once I have them (I just hit up Barsuk for info). Before the film began, I swear I heard Steve Fisk say, "Just in time for Christmas." Somehow, I suspect he was referring to the DVD release...

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I know that "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was a mixed bag for Nirvana and Kurt, but I just have to say that I know exactly where I was (driving past the Dinkytown McDonald's at the University of Minnesota) when I first heard SLTS. I realized in the first sixty seconds that the 80's L.A. hair bands were instantly and irrevocably *done*. For whatever happened later, and the price fame extracted from Kurt, he created the most moving musical moment of my entire life thus far.

Posted by Big Sven | June 3, 2007 1:57 PM

I also distinctly remember the first time I heard SLTS. I was packed in my apartment-mate's Nissan Pathfinder with a bunch of friends in Ithaca, NY. He had just hooked up with CD and wouldn't stop talking about it.

At the time I was into punk, thrash, and some post-hair metal bands like Jane's Addiction and Smashing Pumpkins. My first thought, 30 seconds into the song, was holy shit, these guys fucking nailed the sweet spot between everything I liked. Not long after that, UW became my top pick for grad school.

Posted by Sean | June 3, 2007 3:12 PM

I hope I'm not a wet blanket, but I have to say that I thought that the movie was only "okay." I think that this had to do with a lack of context provided for many of the shots that the film presented (though I didn't have a problem identifying the significance of many of the places or activities shown [i.e., the wrestling]). I don't know, I suppose that I was disappointed. I do, however, like the idea.

Posted by David | June 3, 2007 7:45 PM

I'm glad you spoke up. Some docs work as a primer; this one works better as a supplement to pre-existing materials. The applause afterwards was loud, but not thunderous (and no La Vie en Rose-style standing ovation). I would imagine that some folks will actively dislike it.

Posted by Kathy Fennessy | June 3, 2007 8:56 PM

I can't wait to get the same reaction for my opinion on Chris Crocker that I do from Kurt Cobain.

Kurt Cobain, hero to the northwest, disaffected teens everywhere, and suicide.

I can't wait till nirvana fans are old and talking about how he was like benny fucking goodman and that theres just no good music now a day like cobain will be relevan to music 40 years from now (like goodman was in the 60s and 70s)

Posted by Bellevue Ave | June 4, 2007 10:31 AM

I don't know. I originally was going to stay away from this film after hearing that it was just an audio interview and a bunch of images. But at the last minute I went (partially to get a slightly better seat for Black Sheep afterwards). I liked it much more than I expected. Maybe it was because I had low expectations, maybe because after watching many docs with talking heads it was nice to just listen, maybe because it was visually nice (I'm still trying to get the technical flaws of the Life and Times of Yva Las Vegass out of my head). The mini-Koyaanisqatsi vibe was welcome.

Posted by stinkbug | June 4, 2007 11:37 AM


Posted by Bill | June 12, 2007 12:40 PM


Posted by Bill | June 12, 2007 12:40 PM


Posted by Bill | June 12, 2007 12:40 PM

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