Kurt and Courtney: What's Love got to do with it?By Bence Olveczky
Let's get a few things straight about the controversial documentary Kurt and Courtney re-examines Kurt Cobain's mysterious death: Courtney Love is BAD, Kurt Cobain is GOOD; Hollywood insiders are hypocritical, investigative journalists are not; drug addiction screws you up, and so does a difficult childhood. That's as profound as British filmmaker Nick Broomfield's controversial new documentary ever gets.
But the film, which hit the headlines earlier this year when it was banned from the Sundance Film Festival after pressure from Courtney Love's attorneys, is nevertheless an urgent and important addition to this year's summer movies. Made with the intent of portraying Kurt's relationship to Courtney, this fresh and somewhat obnoxious documentary drifts into examining Love's role in her husband's alleged suicide four years ago.
Kurt died from a gunshot to his head, but no finger prints were ever found on the pistol, and what was thought to be the suicide note could easily have been an apology for the imminent break-up of Nirvana. Uncertainties like these leave ample room for speculation and conspiracy theory, and in Broomfield's documentary the common denominator of all possible scenarios is that Courtney Love was somehow responsible for her husband's death. Little wonder that Love, now a budding film star, tried to stop the production and distribution of this film.
Broomfield, reveling in the role of the heroic filmmaker who is up against the Hollywood establishment, becomes our unofficial guide to the bizarre and disturbing Nirvana hinterland. The film follows the British filmmaker as he interviews the famous couple's relatives and friends. We meet Kurt's aunt Mary who speaks affectionately about her blond nephew, admitting that he had a very difficult childhood. We are introduced to ex-girlfriend/roommate/moneylender Tracy, who still treasures some disturbing examples of young Kurt's artwork: grotesque depictions of what looks like tortured babies. The emerging picture of the Nirvana frontman is that of a shy and troubled musician who turned to hard drugs to escape the trappings of his own success. We see him as the victim of cult worship and mass hysteria, a fate that was seemingly exacerbated when he met Courtney Love, who is portrayed in the movie as an aggressive, ruthless, attention seeking opportunist willing to do anything and use anybody to further her career.
Nick Broomfield has rounded up a strange mix of people to tell the story of Courtney Love. Some of his subjects are believable, others are not. One of the more bizarre accounts come from El Duce, a burly rocker who confesses to having been offered $50,000 by Courtney to "whack Kurt." He is willing to tell the whole story if Broomfield buys him a beer. We later learn that El Duce was mysteriously run over by a train close to his trailer home. Conspiracy and plotted murder? No, argues Broomfield, pointing out that the "liquor store was on the far side of the railroad tracks."
Another surprisingly venomous attack on Love comes from her own father, Hank Harrison, author of Who killed Kurt Cobain?. Having disciplined her with pit bulls when she was a little girl, he now exerts himself in waging a public war against his daughter. Accounts from a bitter detective dedicated to proving that Kurt was indeed murdered, and from the couple's nanny, who admits overhearing Courtney nagging Kurt about his will, complete the unflattering picture of the rock 'n roll widow.
Despite the evidence of Love's involvement in Kurt's death, Broomfield distances himself from the conspiracy theories and uses the ending of the film to raise serious issues concerning journalistic freedom and censorship. In the final scenes we follow him to a dinner for the American Civil Liberties Union celebrating the First Amendment. Love, a Hollywood celebrity since her role in Milos Forman's The People vs. Larry Flint, is the after-dinner speaker. She is comfortable in her new role as a film star, chatting cordially with colleagues and members of the press. In interlaced clips we hear about Courtney's repeated attacks on journalists and her death threat aimed at writer Lynn Hirshberg. The rather bizarre scene makes for a good conclusion to a movie that has been continuously undermined by the very people who gathered to celebrate the First Amendment.
What makes Broomfield's film a gripping and interesting documentary is not its sophistication (there is none), but rather in its rawness, and in the shock value of its subject matter. We feel like we are in a peep show watching something we are not supposed to see. With a journalistic style that is on par with the National Inquirer, Broomfield gives us a voyeuristic show that caters to our perverse fascination with stars and celebrities, while at the same time showing us how this very attitude can become lethal to the subjects of our obsession.