In "Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck," which premiered last night on HBO and is now available to stream on HBO Go and HBO Now, there’s a scene in which the Nirvana frontman shares one of many tender moments with his wife, Courtney Love. Standing in their bathroom, both wrapped in towels after a shower, Cobain shaves while Love laments that she’s become “the most hated woman in America.” Cobain replies, in jest, “You and Roseanne Barr are tied for the most hated woman in America.”
Years later, Roseanne has dropped her surname, but Love—whose band, Hole, released their breakthrough album "Live Through This" just four days following Kurt Cobain’s suicide in April 1994—still remains a polarizing figure. Vilified by Nirvana fans before and after Cobain’s death, the subject of various conspiracy theories that suggest she was responsible for her husband’s demise, and a constant tabloid figure and punching-bag for the last two decades, Love’s legacy has been overshadowed by Cobain’s; whenever you read anything about her, her husband’s name must be mentioned as if she’s not famous and accomplished in her own right.
What’s surprising about "Montage of Heck," then, is how it treats Courtney Love not as a monster but as a human being with equal standing as her husband. The film, a collection of never-before-seen home videos and archival recordings Cobain made on his own, reveals the inner life of an artist who was labeled a spokesperson for a lost generation. The documentary shows Cobain as he saw himself: a poet, a musician, a feminist, a junkie, a lost boy. Kurt Cobain was a lot of things to many people, especially himself, and his inability to integrate all of those identities into one person played a role in his demise.
But the film also reveals a side that was hidden from the public eye — if only because it didn’t fit into a convenient narrative that writers and editors placed upon Cobain. He was a loving and supportive husband, absolutely head over heels for Courtney Love. Director Brett Morgen sets up the audience’s surprise before his film introduces Love as a character; you can hear the documentarian ask Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic why Cobain, already heavily using heroin, would partner up with Courtney Love in the first place — as if she would be a bad influence on a great artist who was already admittedly in the depths of a serious drug addiction. Yes, Courtney Love liked drugs, too, Novoselic says, but he also describes her in ways many Nirvana devotees tend to avoid: intellectual, artistic, interesting. That was “all part of the package,” Novoselic says, of “building a home.” Both Cobain and Love had complicated family lives — "Montage of Heck" identifies Cobain’s parents’ divorce as informing his identity and art — and that played a major part in what brought them together.
Courtney Love maintained a tense relationship (at best) with Cobain’s bandmates, and Novoselic himself tweeted yesterday that he hated the last third of the film (the section that primarily featured Love). And many Nirvana fans who hold disdain for Love may feel the same way, even if they fall into the trap of displaying exactly what their idol wished they wouldn’t — a hatred for Courtney Love, the subtext of which borders on sexism. It was his wife’s infamy, his fans’ strange and obsessive hatred for her that approximated a somewhat jealous proprietorship over Cobain as a rock idol, that played a part in pushing him over the edge and made it increasingly more difficult to accept his rising stardom.
The collective loathing for Love came in various forms, from Lynn Hirschberg’s damning 1992 Vanity Fair profile of the couple (which included anonymous quotes from “close friends” of Love and Cobain that alluded to their debilitating drug use; the article was used as evidence of their parenting inabilities when their daughter, Frances Bean, was taken into custody by authorities when she was two weeks old) to an angry letter written in response to a Sassy magazine cover story about the pair’s romance that ridiculed Love for ruining Cobain. It’s present in the film, as Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl makes a comment during a sound check that Love should straighten her hair because “it doesn’t make your face look so round.” It has come as recently as a few months ago, when Cobain’s former label mate and friend, Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, expressed her disgust with Love in her memoir, "Girl in a Band."
Throughout "Montage of Heck," one gets the sense that Cobain blamed himself for the onslaught of hatred directed at his wife; he, after all, supported her as an artist and musician, probably understanding how much his massive success fueled her own ambition to stand out on her own. Were he alive today, he might be as equally dismissive of all of the theories that he wrote the songs that would end up on Hole’s second album, pointing to the fact (like many of us who have avidly debunked those suggestions) that it’s well within the realm of possibility that both of these artists were inspired by each other throughout their partnership. And I would like to think he would encourage even his biggest fans — and Love’s biggest detractors — to have some empathy for a woman who was left on her own with a young daughter after her husband, one of the most famous people in the world, killed himself at the age of 27.
Although Cobain’s death was tragic, there’s one blessing that came with his suicide 21 years ago: he is immune to artistic failure, to have experimented further with his words and sounds and to have possibly not succeeded. Instead, he left behind a legacy that allows critics and fans to herald him as a savior of rock, of having changed the game early in his career and left behind a near-perfect track record. Courtney Love does not have that luxury. While "Live Through This" stands on its own as a perfect rock album, she still had to live in the shadow of her husband’s death — getting the blame for all of it, as if Kurt Cobain, himself, was blameless. "Montage of Heck" proves, in a subtle way, that this was not the case. It’s somewhat difficult to watch Cobain descend in the final act of the film, to wither under the pressures he placed upon himself and to self-destruct — to physically lose control of himself, particularly as his wife, his child, and others closest to him tried to regain his attentions.
If we can have empathy for Kurt Cobain, if we can forgive him for perishing at the height of his career, why can’t we do the same for Courtney Love? Why must we trash her, call her a bad mother, call into question her artistic abilities? After all, she’s survived throughout the long haul in ways that her husband was unable. Courtney Love may have been haunted for the last two decades by Kurt Cobain’s presence, but that’s because most of us have refused to forgive him for wrongs she did not commit. With "Montage in Heck" and Cobain’s own words in mind, isn’t it time we finally let it go?