Time and again we are told in “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” that the Nirvana frontman — who took his own life in 1994 — abhorred interviews and feared embarrassment. He wrote in journal entries of feeling as if he was constantly being evaluated and wondering if he should keep his mouth shut beyond playing the music he loved to play.
So there is a built-in sense of discomfort watching some of the late singer-songwriter’s most private moments unspool in this utterly captivating and inventively constructed 2-hour-plus film, which airs Monday night at 9 on HBO. “Montage of Heck” was crafted by writer-director Brett Morgen (“Crossfire Hurricane,” “The Kid Stays in the Picture”) and executive produced by Cobain’s daughter, Frances Bean, drawing on art, film, music, journals, and audio montages provided by Cobain’s family.
That family looms large in “Montage of Heck,” as the first portion is given over to his childhood and teen years. His parents’ divorce found him acting out and subsequently shuttled between relatives who often considered him hard to handle. Salvation arrived in the form of punk rock, pot, and petty crime, which both helped him feel better and exacerbated his issues.
We hear from his immediate family, including mother Wendy O’Connor, sister Kim Cobain, father Don Cobain, and stepmother Jenny, who may offer the film’s most devastating comment: “I don’t know how anybody deals with having your whole family reject you.” Ex-girlfriend Tracy Marander fills in the gaps of the pre-fame years. And later, widow Courtney Love — seen in old home movies and in present-day interviews — arrives to offer her account of that relationship. Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic appears in a few short but crucial interviews. All are clearly caretakers of Cobain’s legacy, celebrating his gifts but not afraid to assess his weaknesses, either.
Any Nirvana fans seeking a straightfoward account of Cobain’s life or career — or much of the world that shaped it from the outside politically, socially, or culturally — will not find it here.
Instead, “Montage of Heck” is dizzyingly impressionistic and dense with information: snippets of recordings Cobain made, interview excerpts, and images that, in some cases literally, animate his life story. Band notes, personal scribblings, drawings, sculptures, collages, and films dance across the screen in wild combinations, adding up to a mesmerizing if necessarily incomplete portrait of an angst-ridden artist whose busy mind was responsible for creating both beauty and chaos in his life. (Keep your eyes peeled for one very funny “Peanuts”-spoof comic strip he created, which finds Lucy pounding on Linus’s piano and yelling “I want punk rock blockhead!”)
While there are more lighthearted moments — a bit where a shaving Cobain begins playfully belting out Soundgarden’s “Outshined” among them — “Montage of Heck” is, unsurprisingly, a heavy affair, as Cobain’s heroin addiction, physical ailments, and fractured psyche led to his suicide at 27.
The film has plenty of missing puzzle pieces — Nirvana drummer and future Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl, for example, is seen only in archival interview and performance footage — but there is also a real sense of Cobain’s complexity. That the film was by necessity curated without his voice means that troubling sense of wondering what he’d want people to know repeatedly crops up. There are many intimate moments: An extended home movie sequence with Love in which they are joking with each other, for instance, is heartening and illuminating, but would Cobain have wanted us to see it?
As a fan whose post-college years were partially, and vividly, soundtracked by Nirvana, I fervently wish that instead of being the subject of post-mortem analysis — no matter how artful — Cobain were still here. Wouldn’t it be great if, to paraphrase the Nirvana song “Serve the Servants,” he were wrestling with being “bored and old,” having been paid off well by his teenage angst? In the stark absence of that possibility, “Montage of Heck” is a fascinating look at the man who created music that still matters to so many people.
KURT COBAIN: Montage of Heck
On: Monday, HBO
Time: 9 p.m.Sarah Rodman can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeRodman.