Judge Gordon Sullivan sold the world to some passing aliens for $42. He told them they could have it anytime after the big long now.
"I wanted to create a film that would show all sides to Kurt: his humor, his anger, his fear, his compassion, his sadness, his love, his paranoia, and his clear-eyed assessment of the world around him."—Director AJ Schnack
Nirvana fans have had to put up with a lot of crap since the death of Kurt Cobain. For every necessary release (the much-delayed Unplugged in New York DVD), there's been an unnecessary release like the self-titled greatest hits collection (with its one new track to tempt the faithful). There was the four-disc box set of unreleased and rare material (even if much of it sounded like it should have stayed unreleased), but for that treasure trove there was also a one-disc distillation of the box set (also with a few new tracks to tempt the faithful). Let's not even mention the train wreck that is the release of his "journals." I didn't even buy all those releases and I still feel wary about anything commercial that has Cobain's name attached to it. Luckily, Kurt Cobain: About a Boy is much closer to Unplugged in posthumous spirit than it is the cash-grab greatest hits disc.
Compiled from 25 hours of audio interviews conducted by Michael Azerrad for his book Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana, About a Son is Cobain's story in his own words. There are no talking heads, no input from Courtney or Kris or Dave, just Cobain's voice, with occasional questions or prompts from Azerrad. From his idyllic childhood to teenage alienation, through to the new hope he found in fatherhood, this documentary covers Cobain's life from the age of seven until the year before he died. Cobain's words play over video shot recently in a number of the locations referenced in the narrative, including Aberdeen, Olympia, and Seattle, Washington.
The audio (recorded mostly between midnight and dawn) combines with the video to create a somnambulistic, meditative quality. This dreamy atmosphere gives Cobain's story a timeless feeling despite his association with the early '90s. Removing Cobain from all the hoopla and shenanigans that defined grunge in the period gives his story a more tragic, human quality. This isn't a nostalgia-tinged trip through the Seattle scene, nor is it the kind of creepy autopsy that often accompanies the examination of a genius cut short by death.
I remember Cobain as a misanthropic prankster who made millions of fans ecstatic (much to my confusion) and made millions of parents/pundits angry (also much to my confusion). Judging from this documentary, Cobain was equally confused by the reactions he—seemingly unintentionally—provoked. In these interviews, he's often less misanthropic than his public persona would allow, speaking of happy times with genuine affection, and unhappy times with equanimity.
Those looking for salacious details will be disappointed. About a Son doesn't add much to the story of Nirvana; instead, we get the familiar stories in Cobain's words. There's little discussion of his drug use (heroin doesn't even get mentioned until an hour into the film), and there is almost no discussion of the disintegration of his relationship with Courtney Love. He talks a little about dissent within the band, but rather than dish up details about his bandmates, the blame for the tension is placed squarely on the media.
One could argue that the disconnect between words and images does a disservice to both. Surely a more obvious structure or at least some context would have been appreciated. Although the film provides a roughly chronological treatment of Cobain's life, the lack of overt structure still left a number of places where I wasn't sure what Cobain was talking about. The images are generally interesting by themselves, especially some of the buildings and landscapes from the areas Cobain haunted. However, I found the images of seemingly random people from the area to be disconcerting. Perhaps I've just been trained by other documentaries to treat people in the frame as connected to the subject of the film, but the presence of random strangers did nothing for me aesthetically.
Shout! Factory has done a fine job bringing this film to DVD. The video looks uniformly excellent, with no obvious issues with compression or grain despite the variability in source material. The audio is likewise well-rendered. Some of the interviews sound a little rough, like they were recorded on personal rather than professional equipment, but it never becomes difficult to understand. The music on the soundtrack is well-balanced, never distorting or overpowering Cobain's words. However, Shout! Factory does lose a few points for failing to include subtitles.
The extras are slim, but weighty. "The Voices Behind About a Son" spends 13 minutes with director AJ Schnack, producer Michael Azerrad, and various members of the crew. They discuss the genesis of the project, how it was shot, and how it was scored. Also included are 17 minutes of commentary on selected scenes by director AJ Schnack. He spends most of his time discussing the locations and how they were captured for the film. The final extra is a comparison between some of the footage used to scout for locations and the actual footage used in the film. It was interesting, but hardly essential. Shout! Factory also includes some brief comments from the director as liner notes to this release. I would have liked to see a little more depth on the sessions that produced the score, as well as some more discussion of the music featured in the film. However, considering this a likely niche release, the extras offered are fairly extensive.
Because it avoids the tabloid-style exploitation of a dead rock star in an attempt to paint a human portrait, Kurt Cobain: About a Son is found not guilty.
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