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Love and Death: A Documentarian Looks at the Lives of 'Kurt & Courtney'

Movie review: Filmmaker Nick Broomfield turns out to be a major character in the unnerving--and ultimately unreliable--documentary.

April 17, 1998|KENNETH TURAN | TIMES FILM CRITIC

"Kurt & Courtney," the new hot potato documentary about rockers Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love that's being publicized as "the most talked-about film that didn't play at the Sundance Film Festival," has finally arrived, but in all honesty, "Kurt & Courtney & Nick" would be a more descriptive title.

Nick is Nick Broomfield, the British guerrilla documentarian whose shameless hussy style, developed over decades of work, invariably includes generous portions of himself. Here's Nick, camera always running, barging into the wrong apartment, sweet-talking antagonists on the car phone, striding unannounced into an office in fearless pursuit of the answer to "just a little question." Lack of self-confidence is not a problem area here.

As always, too, Broomfield's choice of subjects involves individuals on the fringes of morality and society. Given that his previous documentaries include "Chicken Ranch's" examination of a Nevada brothel, "Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer" (his best work), "Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam" and "Fetishes," which looks at a New York S&M establishment, it's not likely that the Disney Channel will be calling on his services any time soon.

Bloomfield's films--and "Kurt & Courtney" is no exception--are structured around his dogged quest for information, in this case about the suicide death of Nirvana lead singer Cobain in 1994. Bloomfield claims to have come to the subject with no preconceptions, but in the blink of an eye he is wading hip deep in an open sewer of raucous accusations that the rocker was murdered and that Love was in some way involved in the death.

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Not surprisingly, as Broomfield portentously intones, this was "a story some people have not wanted to tell." Love was understandably irked, and when two songs on the soundtrack turned out not to have the proper clearances, enough pressure was brought to have the film yanked from Sundance. The troublesome music has since been changed and it's now possible for general audiences to experience what the fuss was about.

Unreliable and categorically unfriendly to Love though it is, "Kurt & Courtney" is thoroughly watchable in a bad car accident, trash TV kind of way. All kinds of bizarre people get to hold the floor, a regular carnival sideshow of accusers, self-mythologizers, burnt-out cases and berserk tale-spinners, some of whom aren't even identified with full names.

One of the characteristics of Broomfield's work is that it's impossible to tell whether anyone is telling the truth or not: If you can hold the screen, you can appear in his film. So while it is arresting to hear the insalubrious El Duce, part of a rock group known for the song "You Are My Sex Slave," claim that Love "offered me 50 grand to whack Kurt Cobain," it's anyone's guess the reality level of that statement. Broomfield doesn't help matters by trying to have it both ways, giving screen time to unvetted gossip and then piously covering his tracks by saying things like "I was beginning to doubt everything" and "I wondered how much of anything anybody was telling me was true."

The most emotionally affecting part of "Kurt & Courtney" is its brief portrayal of Kurt Cobain. Starting with time spent with his Aunt Mary, the person who introduced Cobain to music, and including home movie footage and snippets from a very poignant (and uncredited) interview done near the Seattle waterfront, the movie quickly sketches the rock star as sincere, thoughtful and, at least at that moment, very much in love.

After spending time with grunge pals and Tracy Miranda, "Kurt's one and only true love" before he became famous, Broomfield moves on to bigger game. Using his fluid chameleon voice, which can be simultaneously ingratiating, insinuating and instigating, he first debriefs private investigator Tom Grant, a major conspiracy theorist. Then he turns to, of all people, Hank Harrison, Courtney's father, still locked into a fierce ego battle with his offspring, a tough love parent who does not feel his daughter's involvement in murder is beyond the realm of possibility.

Still, even if one is moved to dismiss the murder-conspiracy theories as incredible, it's not surprising that Courtney Love was not happy about this one-sided film. For "Kurt & Courtney" portrays her as a seriously unpleasant person, prone to violence, and in general not someone you would comfortably invite into your life.

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