About A Son is a revealing portrait of a horribly misunderstood figure who looms over an entire generation. Kurt Cobain was the Britney Spears before Britney, the MTV center of attention, the object of scrutiny in a world-wide hyper-charged celebrity-oriented society. And he hated it. His erratic behavior, combative words, and refusal to bow to anyone demanded the attention of the “grunge” generation. Yet after listening to his words, I can believe he killed himself because he didn’t want it and couldn’t stand it. The lies. The bloodsucking. The expectation.
The movie does not focus on Nirvana specifically or Kurt’s death. Instead it reveals Kurt’s growth as a person, from his freewheelin’ youth in Aberdeen to his troubles as a normal social actor and struggling band-leader in Seattle. His story is told entirely in his own words, taken from a series of interviews done with writer Michael Azerrad, done over a period of four months in late 1992 and early 1993, about one year before he died. Director A.J. Schnack accompanies Kurt’s words with current day images of the towns, roads, places and businesses from his life, and music he listened to in his youth, from the Butthole Surfers to Iggy Pop.
The interviews expose a person filled with intention, anxiety and fear, a man in search of legitimate meaning for himself through expression with novel music. Kurt Cobain truly sought salvation in music, saw it as his calling, as providing purpose to his life in a way that nothing else could. And with the arrival of a child and success, music was a way to sustain a family, something that up until that point was of no concern to him. He made a decision to set aside any differences with band mates in order to support his child. In those moments of talking about his child, of putting someone else first, Cobain’s voice seems to contain a pride and hope, emotions curiously barren from the rest of the interview.
For me personally, Kurt Cobain has always been a somewhat mysterious figure. But watching, listening, I couldn’t help but relate, and I ended up identifying with Cobain more than I ever could have expected. The media depiction of him as a drug-addled, slightly off-kilter, and generally angry person is completely at odds with these tapes of Kurt’s lucid and rational recounting and examination of his own life, and yet it’s apparent why this gulf of perception exists in About A Son. Azerrad asks him at one point to comment on his depiction by the press, and his response is pure vitriol toward every journalist out there, because 99% of them aren’t interested in doing the work it takes to tell the truth. He just has no desire to talk to a single one of them. Unwittingly of course, he was feeding the cycle of lies with his unwillingness to sit down and actually be an open person. The business of Kurt Cobain, a business Kurt Cobain wanted no part in supporting himself, didn’t stop just because Kurt didn’t want to talk though.
While his own petulance may have led to his undoing, at the end of watching About A Son one is left with the indelible impression of a troubled soul searching for a way to live. A way to see his child grow. A way to move beyond Nirvana musically into something new. Also though, one is left with the impression that Cobain was equally in earnest looking for escape from attention that he didn’t know how to handle, and didn’t want to know how to handle. That he was searching for relief from what ailed him, pains and people, a place where he could be happy and creative and unbothered.
Today, I wonder whether he came to the conclusion that no such place existed for him. Today, I wonder whether he could no longer stand to drug away the pain. Today, I wonder whether he came to the conclusion that Rock & Roll was in fact dead. Today I feel like I finally understand what everyone was crying about that fateful day in 7th grade, when it seemed like for a moment or two, the whole world had in fact just exploded.