The Legacy Of About A Son Continues

Friday, 18 February 2011

It's funny how time has a dehumanizing effect on the stories that people tell. Eventually a given story starts to develop a layer of gloss like shellac as it is told and then re-told by a multitude of sources; the nuance and details get glazed over, characters become idealized commodities and the story becomes a product. In the act of telling a story, characters and events become inflated, are made two-dimensional and robbed of their humanity.

Even the story of Kurt Cobain was in danger of falling prey to this; since his death in 1994, many writers with only a peripheral acquaintance to the Nirvana frontman have attempted to tell his story, often with results that need to be taken with a grain of salt―the different chronicles bear more of the writer's authoritative voice than that of the singer. How could Cobain's voice really be included though? The amount of discussion with the singer that had been published is finite and the number of reputable sources is even smaller. Finding a definitive account of Cobain's life, fame, and subsequent death seemed to be an impossible hope.

Then Michael Azerrad stepped forward. Armed with a set of tapes from interviews with Cobain―interviews originally conducted to write his definitive Nirvana biography, Come As You Are―Azerrad approached filmmaker A.J. Schnack about the possibility of making a documentary film.

“I knew I wanted to make some kind of somewhat abstract film of out the tapes using visuals that were just appealing to the eye, and then some kind of musical component, but that was about as far as I got,” remembers Azerrad of his original plan for the cassettes. “I had appeared in A.J.'s fantastic and innovative documentary about They Might Be Giants titled Gigantic: A Tale Of Two Johns and we struck up a friendship. We had lunch one day and I mentioned the tapes, and I think maybe a lightbulb came on over A.J.'s head.”

“It was just one of those cases that really seemed meant to be,” continues Schnack. “When Michael and I first talked about the tapes, my first reaction was just wanting to hear them. I was a fan of the band and it was an important time in my life in terms of discovering lots of different music from lots of different places. The more I thought about it though, the more I thought it could be something quite interesting because I am such a fan of interviews and, having read Michael's book, I knew it was not only a really great interview, but it was also something that was really detailed. We both had some ideas in regards to the kind of film that we'd maybe like to make so, when we did start talking about the possibility, it was really good because it didn't take a lot of convincing because we were both on the same wavelength anyway.”

“Yeah – I wanted to hear only Kurt's voice,” adds Azerrad. “I wanted to have some kind of musical component and some kind of beautiful visuals but, because I'm not a film maker, I didn't really know how to articulate that any further. That was where A.J. came in; he's an accomplished film maker and he had some ideas that sounded great, and we took it from there and got the production going.”

Work to produce the film began in 2005 and  Kurt Cobain: About A Son made its' debut at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 10, 2006. It immediately drew notice and a positive response. Fans were already familiar with the conversations from Come As You Are, but somehow actually hearing the dialogue straight from the horse's mouth felt special―it was more intimate and more authoritative than simply reading Azerrad's impressions of Kurt Cobain. There were moments that provided greater insight into Cobain's mental processes and experiences that helped to shape Nirvana's music present in his dialogue. That, in addition to the singer's own appraisals of what Nirvana might be worth from a cultural standpoint, caused viewers to believe no writer could have so presciently summed up the value, worth and interior motivations of a singer who only took on his role as “the spokesperson for a generation” uneasily, and the first person narrative gave credence to other sentiments which would have been called incendiary by fans were they not hearing them directly from Cobain himself.

“Michael and I edited together the audio first, so that all went on in the summer of 2005 and we had our audio track done before we went to go shoot,” explains Schnack of the methodology used to make the film. “I had put together a pretty comprehensive story-book of photographs of places I'd been to and lots of notes for what we wanted to get so when we did start shooting, it was pretty straightforward in regards to where we were going to go.”

“Most of the places in the movie are places that are of relevance to Kurt's life; three of his homes are included, and we went to his high school. A lot of the places in Seattle have changed and they look a lot different now from how they did in '89 or 1990; we did go to the clubs and the top of the Sub Pop building where people used to go to smoke cigarettes but the choice that we made was to not constantly identify every place as 'this is important because of X or Y.' We really wanted to present this world that he saw and which continues to exist, twelve years after his death, at that point. It was just all about creating a kind of sense memory in a way; you were seeing the world of his Pacific Northwest, but seeing it through the eyes of a person in 2005-2006.”

“There were certain things that Michael and I talked about in terms of the presentation of Kurt's image―we had some conversations about whether we were going to withhold his image until the end or how that should be treated. We agreed that you shouldn't see it as you would in a traditional film―where you see photographs interspersed throughout―because we knew we only wanted to rely on Charles Peterson's iconic photography, but the issue with its imagery was always to have it be transportive and have it take you to the area and to the world that he lived in.”

“That's the notion we were working with: the world continues. Seattle's changed a lot since he died; Aberdeen has continued lose jobs―while we were shooting, one of the main mills in Aberdeen announced that it was going to be shutting down and there were going to be seven hundred jobs lost―and slide into even more of a financial Depression, but we wanted to just convey that this is that world and let the audience take from it what they would rather than constantly remind the audience that 'this was Kurt's bedroom' and 'this was his Dad's office at the mill.' We wanted to let people make that association for themselves and draw their own experience into it as well–”

“–but also, all those shots convey a vivid sense of the place that Kurt came from,” continues Azerrad. “That's the idea, so you see a lumber mill and, while it does happen to be the one where Kurt's father worked, but it didn't have to be – it just had to be from around that area. It gave a sense of the environs that Kurt came up in, and that was really what we wanted with the visuals; the shots of Aberdeen show its' Aberdeen-ness and the Olympia-ness of Olympia and the Seattle-ness of Seattle, and each of those places had an effect on Kurt and, I guess, vice-versa. The places he lived say something about the man, but so does the soundtrack, so does the tone of his voice, so does the score; everything is an element that adds up to a portrait of Kurt Cobain.”

That portrait is the reason for  the longevity and impact that the film has proven to possess; on February 20, 2010 [Kurt Cobain's birthday –ed] Kurt Cobain: About A Son will make its' broadcast debut on The Documentary Channel at 8PM ET through Dish Network and DirecTV, as well as being available through Dish Network and DirecTV's Video On Demand services. In addition, The Documentary Channel will be streaming the documentary in full on its' website for those who do not have satellite television.

“What I think is great about the premier on the Documentary Channel is that it's taking all the technologies―where you can stream it online and see the film on a bunch of different platforms―into account with this debut,” enthuses Azerrad at the announcement of the broadcast. “Even though it has been four years or so since it came out, it has really had this ongoing life; people keep discovering it, things like this Documentary Channel thing happen, it gets released in Russia or France or something, and it just has this ripple effect as people keep discovering it. I still get people walking up to me saying that they just saw the movie, and they were really taken with how beautiful the movie is. It still keeps breaking, even over all these years; it's kind of nice, and I like the fact that they're doing it on his birthday; to celebrate his life. The film celebrates him as a person so it's all very fitting.

“There's something about television where it can be very intimate,” Azerrad continues. “I mean, it's just a small group of people sitting with this very meditative movie, and that can be a very powerful experience as well, it's just a different context.

“To be honest, I think the first time I saw the movie was on a TV screen with the producers and I liked it, but it didn't hit me as much as it did when I watched it in a movie theater with other people; I mean, it's amazing because people are just sitting there silently, and you could feel people being moved and engrossed, and that was pretty intense because it really hit home that I was sharing this personal experience that I'd had not only with A.J. and the people associated with the film, but with anyone who saw the movie. That was a really intense experience, especially because the movie succeeded so well in doing what I'd hoped it would do. I think the intimacy of television could work very strongly in the favor of this film.”

In the end, the care taken to assemble this film is indicative of the love its' makers have for its' subject, and the result will be of remarkable value to fans interested to hear Cobain's own appraisal of the story that helped to create one of the most enduring images and icons of the 1990s. “There's a difference between the printed word and the 'heard' word,” says Azerrad plainly. “You can read the same quote on the printed page and then hear the person saying it – and it has an entirely different impact, especially when it's combined with visuals; there's a whole different modality to a book as opposed to a film. If I thought I could have accomplished the same effect with a book, then I would have just done another book – but instead I invited A.J. to jump in and make this movie. Hearing the tone of Kurt's voice combined with the visuals and the soundtrack puts it in a different light.”



Kurt Cobain: About A Son
will be broadcast on The Documentary Channel at 8PM ET, and it will be streaming on The Documentary Channel's web site. Check it out here .


Kurt Cobain: About A Son is available now on DVD. Buy it here on Amazon .

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