Kurt Cobain: About a Son, edited and directed by A.J. Schnack, is a documentary culled from more than twenty-five hours of interviews taped by journalist Michael Azerrad for his book Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana. Their discussions chronicle Cobain’s life from his childhood in Aberdeen, Washington, to the pinnacle of rock stardom at the forefront of the grunge movement.
About a Son humanizes Cobain in a way that’s not wholly positive for his image or his art. This is particularly true during the “Aberdeen” sequence of the film, when Cobain goes through the laundry list of events that led to his “troubled” childhood. As he details his difficult relationship with his father and his trouble fitting in at high school, Cobain sounds disturbingly bitter. Because the interviews took place well after Nirvana had claimed a position of primacy on the rock scene, Cobain sounds peevish describing the slights and disappointments that made up his early life. Though these experiences made up the grist of his remarkable catalog, hearing him bitch about high school and his lame parents somewhat tarnishes his mystique as the voice of a generation.
And Cobain’s voice is the only presence he or the other members of Nirvana have in the film. Though the soundtrack is killer, featuring songs from Seattle artists Mudhoney, the Melvins, and Mark Lanegan as well as from Cobain influencers Iggy Pop, the Vaselines, and Half Japanese, Cobain and Nirvana do not appear sonically or visually. About a Son is filled with seemingly random images of present day Aberdeen, Olympia, and Seattle. Sometimes the images match up with the dialogue. If, for example, Cobain is talking about high school, on the screen is a present-day high school, ostensibly in Aberdeen.
Schnack makes no mention if this is, in fact, Cobain’s high school or simply one that would allow a film crew on its campus. At other points in the film, the link between the visual and audio is even more tenuous; Cobain’s voice often feels totally disconnected from the film-school shots chosen by the director in an attempt at artistic gravity.
About a Son seeks to capitalize on the huge shadow that Cobain still casts over popular music. Given Nirvana’s impact and Cobain’s early death, his every word and action has become larger than life. Death cemented his status as an icon on the level of Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin, who, because the only documents left by these artists are their recordings, have remained unassailable. Though About a Son does offer an intimate portrait of Cobain, it adds little to his legacy. Anything that Cobain really wanted to say is left in the music missing from the film.