Courtney Love and the film that can't be shown
Nick Broomfield's documentaries are notorious. But his latest is causing more trouble than any of them hit some formidable hurdles
Sunday 18 January 1998
Broomfield's films have always caused trouble, but with his latest - which concerns the late Kurt Cobain, lead member of the rock group Nirvana, and his widow, the singer and actress Courtney Love - he has created a legal storm.
The film has been dogged by trouble from the start, but it escalated when the BBC, which had commissioned it, pulled it from its Christmas schedules, leaving Broomfield angry and aggrieved at his alleged treatment by the corporation's lawyers. Then, last week, the film was dropped from the Sundance festival at two days' notice, when Love's lawyers claimed parts of the soundtrack infringed copyright - an issue that Broomfield says the BBC could easily have resolved if it had wanted to. The fate of the film remains uncertain.
"Not only did the BBC drop the film, but they have effectively stopped its screening at Sundance," says Broomfield. He maintains that films screened at film festivals are not covered by the part of the copyright law that Love's lawyers were invoking. "Had the BBC told Sundance it was okay for the film to be shown, none of this would have happened. I feel the BBC has let me down. I've lost faith with them."
The BBC, meanwhile, denies that it has disowned the film. "We will show it at some point," a spokesman said, "but we need to be satisfied that it meets our editorial requirements. We're aware of Sundance's decision, but it's not something we've been consulted about. It's their decision." Not too much, the spokesman added, should be read into its non-transmission on Boxing Day. "It was always a long shot whether it would be shown." Now the BBC plans to run it as part of BBC2's Storyville series later this year, which is a showcase for the best non-fiction films from around the world. Whether Kurt and Courtney get on screen in any form remains to be seen.
Broomfield made his name in documentaries that pursued subjects as big as Margaret Thatcher and Eugene Terre Blanche of the Afrikaner AWB movement, skewering them in deliciously small ways. He has also dabbled in the seedy side of life, with films about a Nevada brothel and the Hollywood "madam" Heidi Fleiss. People who underestimate him tend to pay the price. But his latest project has caused lawyers for Courtney Love to take action.
Thus it was Broomfield who last week ended up behaving rather like one of his unwilling subjects. As I doggedly pursued him from Los Angeles to Utah, a kind of cat and mouse game developed, where promised frank exchanges shrank to brief encounters and prepared statements. The man shown in publicity posters as a dangerous fella with a boom mike and a disarming grin took shelter behind the publicists and lawyers he is so adept at deflating. He appeared to grow rather nervous over a taped conversation in his office and shooed people from the room while he engaged in urgent telephone calls.
All publicity is good publicity, of course, but Broomfield seemed slightly dazed and confused at being let down by an event that had so much embraced him. Broomfield's documentary, according to a description passed out by his publicist, includes interviews with Love's estranged father and with a singer who claims to have been offered money to kill Kurt Cobain.
Cobain, icon of the "grunge" music scene, died in 1994 in what Seattle police have concluded was a shot-gun suicide, though theories of something more sinister have refused to die.
He and Love married in Hawaii in 1992 and appeared to live up to their roles as wild children of rock, the Sid and Nancy of their generation. Love, it was said, found success more by association with the rock superstar than with her own band, Hole, though she blazed her own trail as the bad girl of rock.
BROOMFIELD has worked on the film for three years and says it "deals with the situation surrounding Kurt and his death". He says he did not set out with preconceived ideas. "But once I started making the film, I couldn't believe it - people seemed to adore Kurt but were enormously outspoken about Courtney. In fact, I could barely stop their feelings from coming out. I think Courtney knows this."
The closest encounter between Love and Broomfield came last year, at a dinner in Los Angeles given by the American Civil Liberties Union. Love had been asked to present the Torch of Freedom award to Milos Forman, the director of The People vs Larry Flynt, in which Love gave a remarkable performance as the partner of a US porn king. As the evening closed, guests were startled to see a strange Englishman advance on the microphone and start to address Courtney Love and the crowd.
An ACLU foundation president, Danny Goldberg, snatched back the mike. "You weren't invited, this is not your event, get the f--- out of here," a witness says she heard him say. It was vintage Broomfield. He was then escorted out, and few of the spectators seem to know who he was or what his intentions were. The Los Angeles Times reprinted Forman's speech, but failed to note the interruption.
"I basically asked her whether she supported the ACLU," Broomfield says. "She had said she was a great believer in free speech. Then I asked her whether it was true that she had threatened journalists in the past. She walked off." A few years earlier the former stripper, dubbed "motor mouth" in reform school, might well have given him a piece of her mind. Love, as is well known, ran into frequent trouble with the courts, accused of punching a musician here or swearing at Australian flight attendants there, taking out her anger on fans in Holland. Her reputation built on itself.
But the new Courtney Love is the loving mother of Cobain's child and has left the dying grunge scene in Seattle for a home in Beverly Hills. She hires agents and publicists picked from the cream of the Hollywood establishment, picking and choosing between film offers on the back of glowing - and well deserved - reviews of her in Larry Flynt. The transformation almost precisely spanned the making of the documentary: Broomfield is undoubtedly delving into a past Love seems eager to forget.
In 1992 Vanity Fair published an article "Strange Love", by Lynn Hirschberg, which speculated on the couple's drug problems and categorised a host of other rumours from lesbian lovers to live sex on stage and worries about the health of Love's then unborn child.
The blistering messages Love left on Hirschberg's message machine were "legendary", the Los Angeles Times noted last week; Love herself, in a radio interview, claimed Hirschberg fled under a table when they met at an Oscar-night party. But by 1995, in a second Vanity Fair piece, a flattering cover interview with pictures of baby Frances Bean, the story had already changed. After Larry Flynt, and a succession of awards for best supporting actress, Vogue featured "Courtney Love's Major Make-Over" and news stories were full of her cleaner image. A transformation seemed to have occurred that was only possible in America. Broomfield says that the "subtext" of his documentary is one of "control" and that last week's events only confirmed it.
LOVE is represented by PMK, known as the most powerful publicity merchants in Hollywood. She and her boyfriend, Edward Norton, a co-star in Larry Flynt, are clients of ICM, the powerhouse talent agency. The calls to Sundance officials began before Christmas: the first complaints were about the programme notes for the film, which were toned down.
There were other hints of the unpleasant legal consequences if the film was shown, sources said. Sundance officials turned down repeated requests for a copy of the film, over the recommendations of their own lawyers.
But, finally, it was EMI, Love's record label, that sunk the showing. A letter on 9 January warned Sundance of a "legal liability", claiming the documentary included unlicensed Nirvana and Hole music, apparently in clips from Top of the Pops. Wincing representatives of a festival devoted to the free spirit of independent film-making were obliged to back down on a technical dispute over copyright, citing an "unresolved legal matter".
Broomfield offered to cut the film; festival insiders insisted it was not do-able. Robert Redford, the festival's founder, was nowhere to be seen. While Sundance people almost frantically insisted there was no cave- in, Broomfield talked about free speech and First Amendment rights, and Love's spokesman denied she was involved in any way in the simple use of "unauthorised music".
"The film being pulled is a continuation of what the film is about," Broomfield said. "About someone who will try to control their image. The film ends with me saying that I wonder what attempts will be made to stop this film. As an addendum, I thought I would record any such attempts. All of this I will keep adding to the film, the never-ending film. All this is part of it."
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