Here we are now, entertain us
Nick Broomfield's Kurt and Courtney started life as a biopic of Kurt Cobain - the life, music and violent death of a pop icon. But now it's set its sights on censorship, fame, image manipulation. And truth. By James Mottram
Thursday 25 June 1998
Ostensibly a bio-doc, the film has outgrown its low-key nature. Threatened with a lawsuit by the lawyers of Cobain's widow Courtney Love, organisers of the prestigious independent Sundance Film Festival - in what Broomfield felt was a reaction to "bad legal advice" - pulled the film from its prestigious World Cinema slot at the 11th hour. It played at Sundance's alternative festival, Slam-Dunk, but was dropped from a scheduled BBC telecast. Since then the rights to use Nirvana songs on the film have been withdrawn. Abandoning a soundtrack prepped for Cobain's songs, the segments instead feature Broomfield's public school tones, pointing out that Love's lawyers have laid down their law. Forbidden by the BBC, who backed the film, from playing Top of the Pops footage, Broomfield saw the work transform before his eyes.
"There's been a lot of sabre-rattling, a lot of threats, a lot of bluster. But there's been no lawsuit against us. The removal from Sundance created a belief among the public and distributors that the film had legal problems and couldn't be shown. The film, in the end, became about control and censorship. Its release - all the events since, I've been trying to get it out - have borne out the thesis to the film," he says.
With the denouement showing the kamikaze Broomfield gate-crashing the ACLU dinner, in which Love ironically is invited as a guest speaker as the champion of free expression "in all media", the film becomes as much about her, and what she represents, as it does about Cobain. Eclipsing her husband, she inadvertently casts herself as villain.
"Courtney is very measured and controlling in what she wants. Part of re-inventing yourself is that you've got to be able to control that image. The old image can't be used. There were strict instructions for Pat Kingsley [Love's publicist] saying that in the future you will use this picture of her, all others must be destroyed. You cannot underestimate the power of the publicist, it's censorship. I think a lot of journalists were pleased to see someone making a film in that arena. Magazines are so star-driven, they're reluctant to step out of line or be critical. Journalists resent the fact that editors do not stand up to those situations, allow themselves to be bullied. The people who suffer are the public, who are not given anywhere near the truth."
Inspired to visit Cobain's early haunts from a love-affair with his music, the idea of a music-based documentary grew from Broomfield's desire, years back, to film The Clash.
"I went on tour with them, which was kind of boring. There were drugs, but it wasn't going to be like The Rolling Stones' film Cocksucker Blues. It was just going to be depressing. It wouldn't celebrate anything. Unfortunately, I thought Joe Strummer was really posey. Cobain, and the way he popularised punk, was more interesting. His music was a synthesis of heavy metal, punk and The Beatles; he was a cross-over artist." Conceiving the Cobain film as an examination of this fusion and its influence, Broomfield interviewed dozens of musicians, only to discard the footage upon encountering the various conspiracies espoused upon in books and posted on the Internet. Opening as a biography of sorts, interviewing Cobain's Aunt, headmaster and ex-girlfriend, it transcends the genre to take on board an array of "Who Killed Kurt?" campaigners.
"It would've been impossible to do an in-depth film about Cobain without mentioning the theories, but I actually ended up taking them slightly more seriously than I thought I would do." Lining up an array of hilarious (unintentional or otherwise) characters with axes to grind, Broomfield etches the extremities of rock'n'roll. Highlights include the cowardly Stalkerazzis, employed by Broomfield to vox-pop Love; Love's own father Hank Harrison; and her Portland-based ex-boyfriend Roz, who threatens her on-screen for ruining his musical career.
Noting that the evidence did not point "to a smoking gun, anything tangible", Broomfield as ever assembles his ideas on screen. "I didn't have an angle, I was just trying to find my way through it", he says on film, eventually rejecting the theories he comes across. A great believer in cutting the film together to reveal the very process of documenting the subject, Broomfield draws stylistic comparison with Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam, his previous look at the underbelly of Tinseltown. Both delight in showing his failure to secure interviews; in Kurt and Courtney he goes as far as showing a nervy key financier getting cold feet. A dangerous technique, we become susceptible to Broomfield's point-of-view (or deliberate lack of one), gently nudged in the direction he wants us to go.
"You try as much as possible to recreate the journey - what it's like when you were filming, in an impressionistic way. The process is rather haphazard - any investigation inherently is. It's like a detective story or what Tom Wolfe did with New Journalism," he claims. "You're dealing with instinct. It's just one approach, but if you can involve the audience on this rollercoaster ride and use that as part of the dramatic structure, it's much more revealing. The way you get to somebody, for example, is often as revealing as when you sit down to do the interview itself. You can learn a lot by the problems you're having. You can use everything to define the subject."
How subjective the account of events is remains difficult to assess, the intrusive figure of the bumbling Broomfield appearing the innocent stumbling upon villainy, we are led to think. But he ultimately rejects the non-suicide line. Minus much pre-shoot research, Broomfield's "detective story" is a shot in the dark. Lacking appearances from fellow Nirvana band members, or indeed Love herself, Broomfield pays no tribute to Love's own band Hole, and the groundwork it laid for Cobain and co's success. Omitting facts - we have no idea that Love was only 17 when she was with ex-boyfriend Roz, then 27 - Broomfield's controversy has been shaped as much in the editing room as the court-room.
More than examining Cobain as an "icon of a way of life", or the issues underlying the cult of celebrity, Kurt and Courtney makes you question the truth and manipulative possibilities of documentary film-making. Entertaining certainly, but without Love's side truly represented, is it the Hole picture?
Kurt and Courtney is released on 3 July
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