Ever wondered what a collaboration between Terrence Malick, Wong Kar-Wai, Gus Van Sant, Godfrey Reggio and whoever is in charge of the Smithsonian Folkways documentary division might look like? Well, look no further, you've found your film.
An absolutely beautiful, revealing, honest, hilarious and heart-wrenching anti-doc about one of the last great icons in pop music, Kurt Cobain: About a Son is a masterpiece, and I don't use the word lightly or often. Showing no actual footage or photographs of Cobain, Nirvana, Courtney Love, family and friends, director AJ Schnack, along with cinematographer Wyatt Troll (not joking), strings together an incredibly breathtaking and moving series of shots comprised of landscapes and people, all pertaining to the words being spoken behind the images - words culled from 25 hours of interviews conducted with Cobain just a year before his death. Never obvious or trite (although a few of the "faces" montages ALMOST bordered on a United Colours of Benetton advert), the images are here to enrich the dialogue and to cause the viewer to reflect on the simple and often disarmingly striking beauty of the commonplace, whether it's a diner in some whistle-stop mill town or the features of a gas station attendant in Seattle.
Schnack seems to be channeling some bizarre mix of Robert Frank, Ansel Adams and Larry Clark, and the results are never less than riveting. The images and voice are always superbly integrated - one never distracts from the other (although the sequence in the lumber mill with Queen blaring on the soundtrack was so gloriously and intentionally absurd, it made me laugh out loud). You almost forget that what you are essentially doing is listening to someone speak for 90 minutes - and you're completely enthralled.
I was just sliiightly too young to have been affected by Cobain's suicide (or "death", if you're in that conspiracy theory camp), but I was aware of the music at age 14 when Cobain left us. I remember one of my older sisters crying when the news came through and it seemed so strange in my naive world that someone could care about a person that they never even knew. Now that I'm older, and only marginally less immature, I realize that that sort of news is often the most jarring - to see one of your idols, one of your heroes, one of the immortals, become suddenly and savagely mortal in front of the world's eyes.
This film allowed me to see Cobain not just as a giant, a hero, a rock star, but someone so perfectly normal, someone just like me or my friends, someone profoundly human. And it is because of this that Schnack's film is both uplifting and incredibly mournful - it isn't a god who has left us, but a human being; this is precisely the sort of passing we must mourn if we are to remain human ourselves.