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KURT AND COURTNEY

Review by Michael Jacobson

Director:  Nick Broomfield
Audio:  unlisted
Video:  Standard 1.33:1
Studio:  Fox Lorber
Features:  Theatrical Trailer, Filmographies, Discographies
Length:  95 Minutes
Release Date:  September 28, 1999

Film ***1/2

Early on in the film Kurt & Courtney, Kurt Cobainís aunt offers to play a song he recorded on her sound equipment at age 17, one where he even played the percussion himself by banging on a suitcase.  But we never hear the song.  The director explains that Kurtís widow, Courtney Love, had threatened a lawsuit if he included any of Kurtís music in his film.  Quite a blow.  So, if youíve happened to avoid this film because you donít care for the music of Nirvana, you donít need to worry.  There is none.

I can still remember the battles over this BBC produced documentary.  The little filmmaker versus the woman who had become a Hollywood giant.  Similar to the war between Frank Sinatra and author Kitty Kelly a decade earlier, one began to wonder if a film that attempted to shed light on such a shady subject as the death of Kurt, and whether or not it really was a suicide, and if his own wife may have been involved, would ever see the light of day.  The good news is, we do have the film, but the bad news is, Courtney Loveís influence against it does show through in more ways than one.

This is a no-frills documentary thatís simply well made, even in consideration of the events in the film that didnít go as well as they might.  Thatís one of the fascinating aspects of documentary filmmakingÖthe kind of fly by the seat of the pants approach, and the constant uncertainty of the audience knowing that the filmmakers themselves arenít sure how itís all going to pan out, or even if it will work.  And I credit director Broomfield for having the guts to leave in some of the less than stellar moments, such as when he accidentally enters a wrong apartment, or when he gets booted off of a stage by the president of the ACLU, or when certain parties he interviewed seemed a bit to strung out to be coherent.

The question that inspired the film is simply, was Kurt Cobainís death a suicide?  It was ruled that he had in fact ended his own life with a self-afflicted gunshot wound.  I can remember at the time that myself, and friends of mine who were also fans of Nirvana, were saddened by the news, but not overly surprised.  We knew about his complaints of chronic stomach pains (which he attempted to combat with heroin), and his apparent frequent bouts of depression.

But it didnít take long for conspiracy theorists to begin doubting that the case was so simple.  Beginning with the fact that the shotgun had no fingerprints on it (did someone wipe it clean?) and going deeper into Kurtís sometimes rocky relationship with his wife, Courtney Love, certain aspects of his death have not set well with certain parties.  Many believed Courtney, with her history for manipulation and drive for success, just might have been responsible.  It is noted in the film that as Kurtís widower, she now owns everything Kurt owned, including his songs, and had Kurt divorced her instead of died (which was hinted as a possibility), the best she would have acquired would be half.  Even Courtneyís own father seems convinced that Kurtís death was not a suicide, and that his daughter may have been involved.

But the film is fascinating on two fronts:  in addition to the exploration of the conspiracy theory, there is also attention paid to the increasing fight against the film being made at all.  At certain points, Broomfield finds himself struggling to continue his project, as Courtney aligns forces against him.  At one point later in the movie, the director gets a call that his funding has been rescinded.  As such, this film not only documents its subject matter, but also becomes a kind of documentary of the struggle to make a film of this kind in the face of some powerful enemies.

One segment in particular is praiseworthy.  Though Courtney had repeatedly refused interview requests, Broomfield and his film crew decide to try to talk to her at an ACLU event, where she will be a guest speaker.  Early on, we see a couple of self-proclaimed stalkers training the crew on how to protect themselves against herÖthey warn, for instance, to watch out for the camera, which she will try to grab.  When the event finally arrivesÖwell, when was the last time you felt a real sense of suspense being created by a non-nature documentary?  I was on the edge of my seat waiting to see what would happen.  I was sufficiently prepared, not only by the training sequence, but by seeing and hearing clips of Courtney threatening and cursing out reporters.  With the notion of a possible confrontation, the sequence was electrifying.

In the end, I donít know if this film is likely to convince anyone of the veracity of the conspiracy theory.  Fact is, Broomfield explores it nicely, with a somewhat open mind and an attempt to include all points of view.  But the movie did give me plenty of information I hadnít considered before, and it definitely opens the matter up for some consideration.  Iím sure Iíll be thinking about this one for a while to come.

Disc Quality **1/2

In a nutshell, good video, fair audio.  For a documentary, this is actually quite an impressive looking disc.  Not all scenes are as bright and colorful as fictional films with carefully structured cinematography, but I noticed no grain or compression evidence, and images that were sharp and clear, with well defined colors and detail.  The audio, which is unlisted on the box, appears to be a simple stereo mix of some kind.  Itís mostly good, but a bit unclear from time to timeÖpossibly more the fault of the filming limitations than the transfer.

Features **

Although itís not listed on the box, there is a trailer on the disc, as well as listings for the director, Kurt Cobain, and Courtney Love.

Summary:

Kurt & Courtney is a fascinating and rather compelling documentary that offers much to consider.  Whether or not itís enough to change your opinion about the death of Kurt Cobain remains to be seen.  But this look at the lives of the people involved, the post-grunge Seattle, and even a bit of the behind the scenes problems of a documentary filmmaker, is engaging and entertaining enough to warrant a close look.