FILM REVIEW By JASON LLOREN
Blast San Francisco Bureau
Kurt and Courtney
Directed by Nick Broomfield
"Kurt and Courtney" begins as a straight-faced attempt to portray one of the most intriguing rock couples of all time, the grungy Cobains. He, of course, was the voice of Nirvana who killed himself in 1994; she, the scarred baby-doll face of Hole.
What starts off as a sincere effort to profile alternative music's power couple degenerates into an obsessive-compulsive, self-absorbed pursuit of conspiracy theory: the idea that the tortured musician Kurt Cobain was possibly the victim of Courtney Love's quest for fame and success.
It's not directly stated that she killed him but it strongly hints she had something to do with his death. It is at times entertaining and insightful but also embarrassing, unbalanced and unfair. In the end, it turns out being a hit piece slapped together with half-truths and conjecture.
Broomfield begins his journey into the lives of these musicians by visiting friends and family. Scenes and settings are connected through shots of drives through suburban neighborhoods, a visual device that brings a down-to-earth verite sensibility to the film.
We meet Cobain's aunt, who describes the Nirvana singer's early years. In a scene that serves to heighten the pathos of Cobain's life, the aunt plays an early recording of a toddler Cobain singing with affinity to a Beatles tune.
When the director introduces the audience to a former live-in girlfriend of Cobain's, the film begins to shift toward absurdity. Instead of probing, Broomfield pokes at the truth and at times he looks silly. Many shots -- demonstrating the bare-bones budget of the film -- show Broomfield interviewing subjects while he's holding the boom mike and audio equipment. He's juggling duties here, much as he is aimlessly tossing images and ideas at his subjects and by extension to his audience.
The former girlfriend shows Cobain's odd art works -- plaster babies and paintings of embryos -- and Broomfield's simple-minded journalism begins to reveal itself when he asks: Did he have a fascination with fetuses?
Broomfield also hooks up with friends and friends-of-friends of the couple. He meets a former rocker-boyfriend of Courtney Love's in Portland, who shows old mementos from their relationship. Included is a list purportedly drawn up by Love that shows her business plan for success. Among the steps: become friends with REM singer Michael Stipe. "And what did she do?" the boyfriend asks. "She became friends with Michael Stipe!" A hint of her Machiavellian ways lends easily toward the murder-conspiracy theory the film ultimately leans toward.
In all fairness to Broomfield, he can't be blamed entirely for the absurd-yet-real turn the film takes. Some of the characters the director ends up interviewing include drugged-out dunderheads, disgruntled lovers and opportunists but hey, they're real and come across the screen as sincere (although some are evasive or overly defensive).
Still, one must question Broomfield's journalistic credibility when certain interview subjects are conspicuously missing. Where are Cobain's band mates in Nirvana? Certainly they would've witnessed a decline in Cobain's emotional health or of his relationship with his wife. Love's side meanwhile is defended by no one (understandably, she refused to comment to Broomfield) and certainly not by her reported and recorded threats to other journalists.
The net result: We see Cobain as a pained artist, his wife as a manipulative evil bitch, period. It's a painting that's given strong color by Broomfield's brush strokes. What keeps the audience engaged in this cinematic profile are bits of realism tinged with absurdity. Are we actually hearing Love's dad Hank Harrison say he loves his daughter but believes she was behind Cobain's murder?
When we are introduced to a whacked-out, scary-looking ex-rocker named "El Duce" we immediately find him unbelievable. But when El Duce announces he knows who murdered Cobain, Broomfield's journalistic instincts cause him to chuckle. When Broomfield's crew corners Love at an award show pretending to be friendly, suck-up reporters, what do they do? They choke and fail to confront her with hard-nosed, probing questions. Instead of a pursuit for fact, the film has become a documentary joke.
And oddly the punch line pays off. "Kurt and Courtney" plays like "This is Spinal Tap" in a real-world setting, all with the paranoid underpinnings of "JFK" (in fact, Broomfield himself quite resembles Oliver Stone).
At the same time, the film is not only about the alleged conspiracy, but the difficulty Broomfield encounters in documenting this story. "Kurt and Courtney" becomes a self-serving First Amendment crusade, complete with scenes showing Broomfield scraping to keep his project fiscally afloat and fighting off the legal threats (Love's lawyers managed to get the film booted from opening this year's Sundance Film Festival before it was defiantly premiered at San Francisco's Roxie theater on Feb. 27).
In the end, Broomfield has proven nothing while suggesting a lot. He degrades Love's character (although she hardly needs help there) and leaves an unflattering portrait of Cobain. Sadly, it unintentional makes a comedy out of tragedy.