Over several months in 1992 and 1993 rock journalist Michael Azzerad had a series of late-night conversations with Kurt Cobain. What started out as research for a Rolling Stone cover story, eventually became the seminal Nirvana biography, Come As You Are. Azzerad recorded 25 hours of his conversations with Kurt, which mainly took place between midnight and sunrise. Kurt killed himself seven months after the book's release and Azzerad, who had tucked the tapes away in his closet, couldn't bring himself to listen to them.
Some years later filmmaker AJ Schnack interviewed him for the documentary, Gigantic (A Tale of Two Johns), a film about They Might Be Giants. Schnack and Azzerad struck up a friendship and found common ground in their admiration for Cobain. Azzerad, who was looking for some closure on his history with Kurt opened up the vaults and shared the tapes with Shnack. Together, they decided to use the conversations as a basis for a documentary on Kurt's life and his contribution to rock music.
The result is the haunting About A Son, which had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival this past Sunday night. Using Kurt's own words, we learn about his childhood, his family, his bouts with physical pain, his fear of being average and the one thing he truly lived for - the music. The words are complemented by beautiful, elegiac images courtesy of cinematographer Wyatt Troll's lens. We see the lumber yard where Kurt spent Saturday afternoons with his father, Olympia High School, where everyone thought he was gay because his only friend was, Olympia Community Radio - one of the first stations to play his music, the myriad of crappy apartments where he lived and the sometimes hopeful, sometimes forlorn faces of contemporary Washington residents. The film also features clever animations courtesy of the directing team, Tomorrow's Brightest Minds, and the work of Nirvana's unofficial photographer, Charles Patterson.
Critics will undoubtedly complain that the film suffers from the fact that it doesn't feature a single Nirvana song. At a Q&A after the film, Shnack made a feeble attempt to support this as a creative decision claiming that the film is about Kurt and not Nirvana. But the argument doesn't hold much water considering Kurt, himself, said that his band mates didn't deserve writing credits since he did it all on his own (not to mention that Kurt's widow most likely put the kaibosh on Schnack's request). In its place, the film boasts an excellent compilation of songs by artists that served as Kurt's inspiration - Arlo Guthrie, Queen, Cheap Trick, The Vaslines, Butthole Surfers and David Bowie, to name a few. Equally as strong is a score composed by Seattle's own Ben Gibbard and another mainstay on the Pacific Northwest music scene, Steve Fisk.
Ultimately, what makes this film so compelling is its unfiltered look at a tortured genius. Yes, Kurt was a heroin addict and a manic-depressive, but he was also a father and a husband, and, if nothing else, a hell of a songwriter.