Screen Reviews

Kurt Cobain: About A Son

Kurt Cobain: About a Son

directed by AJ Schnack

Bonfire Films

No music journalist, other than maybe Brit Everett True, got closer to Kurt Cobain than Michael Azerrad. Azerrad, a veteran of Rolling Stone, was granted insider access to the Nirvana camp while writing their first authorized biography Come As You Are in the early ’90s. His research included hours and hours of taped conversations with frontman Kurt Cobain, where his guard seemingly (with a capital S) went down, and he held forth on his whole life, in an at times startlingly candid fashion, other times puncturing longstanding myths about the band. In time, the book was published. Nirvana got even bigger with the release of In Utero. Cobain killed himself and the rest is the stuff of rock mythology. But what about those tapes?

Well, director AJ Schnack took those interview recordings and fashioned a linear storyline of Kurt Cobain’s life in his own words, from childhood to an early punk rock epiphany to stardom to, well, the dark underside of stardom. Cobain’s words were paired with National Geographic-quality shots of Aberdeen, the neighborhood where he grew up, cosmopolitan Seattle, the punk rock utopia of Olympia, and shots of everyday life and passersby in all of those places. When Cobain tells of how his father was a logger, you get shots of a logging plant and the work that goes on there, when he speaks admiringly (and yet somewhat condescendingly) of a band playing on the street of Olympia, you get a shot of, well, a band playing a street in Olympia. It’s a fascinating exercise in illustrating his inner/outer monologue, pairing vivid slice of life snapshots with the confessions of a tortured rock star. There is no performance footage, there is no video of Cobain interviews; the only direct visual reference to the band is some black and white performance shots of Nirvana and the classic early ’90s Sub Pop/grunge scene (Green River, et. al.) — taken by Charles Peterson and crackling with kinetic energy.

Cobain is in turns painfully candid and callous and self-aggrandizing. One gets the feeling that he protests too much when he says that he always wanted to be famous and have a huge audience for Nirvana. And when he cruelly casts early supporter and girlfriend Tracy Marander as not creative enough for him (with Courtney Love no doubt sitting nearby), shit-talks Olympia’s K scene, and says that normal people just annoy him, it’s a little much. But that’s just the impetuous self-belief of youth crossed with the elitism of punk. Contradiction is in the rock star job description.

There is a sense of elegiac stillness and space that pervades the whole film, brightly punctuated by songs from Big Black, Melvins, Arlo Guthrie, and the Vaselines. The visual/audio pairings are at times incredibly clever and affecting. As Cobain rhapsodizes fondly and excitedly about meeting Courtney Love, still totally smitten, telling tales of how they were a modern day Sid and Nancy, the bright lights, big city of a Seattle night are sped up, with the sun setting and then rising on the Puget Sound.

He speaks remarkably little about Chris and Dave, with the notable exception of a long rant about songwriting credits overlaid with shots of seagulls flying and faces shot in profile. Cobain’s dark side comes through with a chilling revenge monologue against journalists. For those who are looking for signs and symbols of things to come, Cobain talks about the impending end of Nirvana and then the impending end of rock ‘n’ roll with a peaceful resignation. He even speaks of death and how he thinks about it all of the time. One is almost relieved by the timely interruption of David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold The World.”

The movie ends on the perfect double note, Courtney calls to Kurt from the background to bring a baby bottle (Similac) upstairs, then Azerrad asks, as a closing question, if Cobain is a Martian. He laughs and against a black screen void, says, “I’d like to think so,” and they share the laugh. The end. A great experiment, and it saves us from the inevitable disaster that the first Kurt Cobain biopic is sure to be. Win. Win.

About a Son:

Music Reviews

Brilliant Colors

Brilliant Colors



I knew I’d like this just looking at the cover. I wish more bands would put themselves on the covers of their albums. Even if it does look like the Brilliant Colors trio is obscured behind a pane of flour-splattered glass, they still strike that effortless mix of awkward (weird-ass haircuts and shirts) and drop-dead cool (sunglasses on all three). The lyrics are on the inside cover in a hurried scrawl of black-marker inspiration — the ones with only five lines and a frenzied yelp are often the best.

To describe the brilliantly clattering and un-self-conscious music on Introducing, I have to start by saying something that is going to sound like a backhanded compliment, but it’s not intended that way; there is nothing on this album that sounds particularly new. You’ve heard it before, in different configurations. Brilliant Colors succeeds (where lesser bands fail) by dint of conviction, volume, and the serrated wonder in their joyous noise. Again, you know it well — thousand yard stare, icy female vocals, oddly out of time sense of poise in their execution (almost like Raincoats or Velvets), a frenzied stumble of drums and sheets of spiky, buzzing, wall-of-thrash guitar noise trumping everything else. Stray hints of Vaselines, Beat Happening, Vivian Girls, Marine Girls, Dinosaur Jr., Raincoats, and The Slits slice through your speakers, reminding you of heartbreaks, secret promises, and raucous laughter on some autumn night. The songs rush by in a frenzied trample, less than a half-hour in all, flush with the thrill of being alive and dancing to your own, two-chord, rapturous noise. I want more already.


Print Reviews

Grunge Is Dead

Grunge Is Dead: The Oral History of Seattle Rock Music

by Greg Prato

ECW Press

Despite almost being hobbled right out of the gate by a pedestrian cover that makes it look like a quickie “Sounds of Seattle” chord book and weirdly giganto-sized text on the inside, you really have to look beyond the presentation here, for content is king. Author Prato works from a very gutsy premise — that the Seattle “grunge” scene of the late ’80s/early ’90s was in its own way as important as the New York punk scene of the late ’70s. To that end, Prato gives grunge the full Legs McNeil, gathering up all the major players in the Seattle saga, large and small, for a Pacific Northwest edition of Please Kill Me. Fans and concertgoers (interesting gambit) share talking-head duties with members of marquee bands like Soundgarden, Mudhoney and Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, while club owners, label impresarios like Bruce Pavitt, Slim Moon, Jonathan Poneman and Daniel House, artists, managers, producers like Jack Endino, and pioneer bands like Mother Love Bone, Tad, Melvins, and Fastbacks fill in the rest of the blanks.

Everyone involved holds forth in a surprisingly candid manner, considering not all the bodies are buried yet, and at least half of the interviewees are still active artists, laughing and crying and reminiscing fondly and still a little shocked that everything exploded in the way it did, and all the tragedy that eventually overtook the scene. Most entertaining nod goes to Mark Arm, cult figure supreme/frontman of Green River/Thrown Ups/Mudhoney, with a close runner up being Jeff Ament, bassist for Green River/Mother Love Bone/Pearl Jam/Deranged Diction. In fact, it’s a pretty major coup to get the likes of Eddie Vedder, Ament and Stone Gossard, still pretty fresh off the Pearl Jam press blackout. But it’s mutually beneficial, they share their side of the story, and there’s a lot of history to tell, and they get their still somewhat spurious rep burnished by the likes of Arm telling a story about how after touring with both Nirvana and Pearl Jam, it was Pearl Jam who seemed more independent and in control of their own destiny. Elsewhere Duff McKagan gets his historical due, beyond just bleach blonde GNR knucklehead to punk rapscallion and scenester extraordinaire, as a member of Fastbacks, Ten Minute Warning and the Fartz.

The sordid story is told in full, from all sides — artist, promoter, consumer. And it’s an entertaining story, full of black humor and pathos about how an unlikely city’s music scene basically slipped on a banana peel right into the manhole of popular consciousness. If you ever thought Sub Pop’s Pavitt and Poneman had a grand plan, they themselves, along with insiders like Tad Doyle, Daniel House and Kim Thayll are quick to discount that notion. I don’t need to remind you of the particulars of Soundgarden, Nirvana and the house that Sub Pop built — if the book just retold that yet again, it would be worthless. It’s the human anecdotes that make this book — whether it’s a bunch of Seattle hipsters going to see the first Seattle gig of “Duff’s new band” (Guns N’ Roses) and ending up horrified, Andrew Wood dressing up in KISS makeup and pointing to imaginary balconies full of fans in dive bars, Pearl Jam and Mudhoney deciding not to do a Green River reunion as an encore because they remembered how much their music “sucked,” Soundgarden having the most passive aggressive band breakup ever, or Tad getting the shit sued out of themselves repeatedly, for unfortunate choices of cover art — it’s the stuff that Woody Allen films, and Spinal Tap songs would beg for.

Some parts of “the story” don’t get the attention they deserve. For instance, Everett True’s recent Nirvana biography captured the more slapstick/art-pranks side of Seattle music, like the Thrown Ups and Tad’s outrageous antics. Though, to be fair, relevant members of each outfit are given copious interview time. As is Blag Jesus/Dahlia, the inimitable frontman of one of only two bands who’ve ever scared the shit out of me live (the other was David Yow, and the runner up was Leslie Rankine from Silverfish), who’s just gloriously contemptuous and contrarian about every bit of conventional wisdom about Seattle music (like, Nirvana was good, etc). And there’s just this uncomfortably mawkish chapter of reminiscences of Kurt Cobain (and then Layne Staley) that almost torpedoes the whole book, until Dahlia swoops in and shits on everyone’s fond memories. Oddly, a similar chapter about Andrew Wood is much better.

If you’re into oral histories — and you should be, Studs Terkel knew what was up — this is probably the closest “grunge” will get to the definitive no-agenda record.

ECW Press:

Music Reviews

Fight Amp

Fight Amp

Hungry For Nothing

Translation Loss

The dirty shores of Jersey have given us another hardcore band to sing praises to.

Fight Amp (formerly Fight Amputation) emerges from the grimy basements of West Berlin, NJ with a sludge-soaked musical concoction that is birthed from the same metal/punk breeding ground that The Melvins and Green River clawed their way out of a decade ago. Of course, in order to hear this pre-grunge influence it’s first necessary to scrape away a thick layer that sounds almost too much like Unsane and Helmet.

Then again, none of those bands had a woman on guitar and vocals. Fight Amp has one with a voice that’s as balls-out as the male vocalist in the group, and songs that find her singing lead, as on “Bound and Hagged,” pack added heat. With a guttural growl, not as maniacal as Arch Enemy’s Angela Gossow but in the same ballpark, a fresh listener would be hard pressed to pick out which vocals on the album are indeed done by a woman.

Hungry For Nothing is just over 30 minutes of music you’ve heard before, but if hardcore-flavored metal that drips with stale beer and cheap cigarettes is your choice flavor, then this is one release that is sure to set your taste buds dripping.

Fight Amp: