Kurt Cobain: About a Son
February 20, 2008
Since Kurt Cobain’s death in 1994, many books have been written about him and his band Nirvana that try to get the real story about the musician and reluctant rock star. Arguably, the best book about him is Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana by Michael Azerrad. He was able to get close to Cobain and gain his confidence, recording hours of audio interviews with the man on a wide variety of topics.
Director A.J. Schnack has taken these audio-taped conversations and assembled an unorthodox documentary on Cobain entitled About a Son (2006) that eschews the usual formula of footage of concerts and talking head soundbites from friends and family for footage of the cities he grew up and lived in: Aberdeen, Olympia, and Seattle. This provides a snapshot of the people who live there and gives a sense of what it looks like.
At times, Cobain mentions a band or a song that influenced him and then it plays over the soundtrack which goes against the trend of populating the documentary with Nirvana songs. The montage of mundane images of a logging site or a stretch of highway allows you to focus on what Cobain is talking about, like how his parents’ divorce affected him so profoundly. He talks about the back pain he suffered from for some time and how it was eventually replaced by stomach pain, which is what ultimately motivated him to commit suicide.
There are some fascinating insights, like how befriending a gay boy while in high school ostracized Cobain from his classmates because they felt threatened. He says that this friendship prevented him from committing suicide at a time when he felt very alienated. It’s not surprising that Cobain comes across as a very thoughtful commentator about himself and life in general. The audio tapes allow Cobain’s disembodied voice to narrate his own story. After awhile, however, watching About a Son is like listening to an audio commentary from beyond the grave.
“The Voices Behind About a Son” features Azerrad talking about how he conducted his interviews with Cobain, how he first met him, and so on. Schnack talks about he met Azerrad and pitched the idea of the film to him. Azerrad had resisted using his Cobain tapes in other projects for years but felt that this one was appropriate.
There is a selected scene commentary by director A.J. Schnack. He talks about some of the locations that they shot for the film and their specific connections to Cobain. For example, they were able to shoot in the house where the interviews with him were conducted.
Finally, there is “On Location: Scouting Video to Scene Comparison” that takes a look at the differences between the location scouting footage and photographs and the final version in the film.