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Nick Broomfield: Documenting Icons DVD boxset

Kurt & Courtney

featuring: Nick Broomfield, Kurt Cobain, and Courtney Love

director: Nick Broomfield

92 minutes (15) 1998
Optimum DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
Now that Michael Moore is winning prizes and getting booed at the Oscars and documentaries like Supersize Me! are being released at the cinema it would be easy to forget a time when the documentary was much less in the public eye. At a time when mainstream cinema was turning its nose up at feature-length documentaries Nick Broomfield was quietly changing the way documentaries are made and the way we think about them.

Broomfield is better known for his films about the sex industry (Chicken Ranch) and his biting unofficial biography of Thatcher, but this investigation into the lives of Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love shows him in his prime. Broomfield's skill lies in coaxing information out of his subjects without them realising how much they've given away, he uses a technique that's since been adopted by TV interviewers such as Louis Theroux, Ruby Wax and Daisy Donovan (and he could even be seen as the source for Chris Langham's comedy interviewer Roy Mallard in People Like Us). Broomfield continuously wanders into shot, wearing a huge set of headphones, a large boom microphone and a permanently confused expression. He gives off an aura of amateurism that makes people let their guards down, he'll set them up for the devastating question they don't even notice or confronts them in such a way as to provoke them into damning themselves. We're a long way from the crude ranting of Michael Moore. Where better to use these finely honed skills than in the murky underworld of the Pacific Northwest's rock scene and the dark underbelly of the global phenomenon that was Nirvana?

The film starts with Broomfield talking to Cobain's family and friends in his hometown. We hear about how the happy musical little boy captured on his happy-clappy Christian aunt's tape machine was kicked out by his parents, lived with a teacher and eventually with a girlfriend. It's clear that art was a release for what was evidently a deeply troubled and self-loathing man whose self-portrait looks like a concentration camp survivor (amusingly the plaid shirts that Cobain made fashionable were worn because he hated how his body looked). From there we move on to Courtney Love who is portrayed from the beginning as a manipulative glory hound and could be seen as the villain of the piece. We meet such grotesques as Love's father (who used pit-bull terriers to discipline her and claims he can 'kick her ass') and El Duce (who claims Love offered him money to kill Cobain) as well as assorted former employees who never have a kind word to say about Love.

It's often argued that this piece lacks focus. Some argue that the film is all over the place and that it never gets to the heart of the matter. On a first watch you might be tempted to think the same thing. The film looks at the lives of Cobain and Love but never really gains any kind of deep insight into them as people. Even Love, whose character flaws are well publicised, is still something of an enigma after watching this film. Similarly, the film doesn't spend that much time on the conspiracy theories so there's no sense in which Broomfield gives any kind of definitive answer as to how Cobain died. At first glance, you see a poorly structured film in which Broomfield stumbles through the youth of Cobain and Love and comes up without much to show for it. However, to think such a thing is to completely underestimate Bloomfield as a filmmaker. This is not a film about Nirvana or about Cobain and Love. It is a film about fame that uses them merely as an example.

In a way Broomfield's interview technique is a metaphor for this film in that it is astonishingly subtle. An outward appearance of lack of focus carefully hides a film that is coolly analytical. Kurt and Courtney have touched the lives of many in their voyage from troubled kids to global superstars. The people that Broomfield interviews in this film have all been changed by their proximity to fame. Some people are embittered and disgusted by their closeness to fame, this is why they are so quick to condemn Love or express regret at how Cobain's fame quickly isolated him from others. In some cases this leads people to feed the flames of conspiracy surrounding Cobain's death. Indeed, if you look at the deaths of JFK and Princess Diana you will see a similar phenomenon as minor acquaintances publish books that feed into the idea that these famous people didn't just die because the famous can't die... they can only be taken from us. The only person who really walks away from this film with her reputation intact is Cobain's aunt who was inspired by the death of her famous nephew to reach out to others by teaching kids how to deal with their feelings.

You don't have to like Nirvana to enjoy this film. You don't even need to be particularly interested in Kurt Cobain to get a lot out of it. While there's a lot here to entertain and educate fans of Nirvana, I think that the age of the film has deadened its impact. At the time it was made Love seemed poised to take the music and film worlds by storm thanks to The People Vs. Larry Flynt and Billy Corrigan helping out with the new Hole album. As time has passed Love's career as an actress has fizzled out and despite the publicity Hole never quite made it to the top table, so the image of Love as someone who has stepped on everyone in order to get to the top is no longer that fitting. However, as a critique of the pursuit of fame this film is as fresh and as biting as ever. It's definitely a must see even if one thing we might regret is the absence of the documentary (present in previous editions of the DVD) telling how the film had to withdraw from competition at the Sundance festival. It's a classic piece of documentary filmmaking.

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