About a Song

Cobain doc sets a mix tape mood

In the recently released Kurt Cobain documentary About a Son, Nirvana's music is noticeably absent. Instead, director AJ Schnack lets Cobain tell his own life story by splicing raspy narration taken from phone interviews between the musician and author Michael Azerrad with artful, rich scenes of people and places from the towns where Cobain lived. This sense of eerie disconnection and beyond-the-grave atmosphere is reinforced by a desolate, floating-in-murky-water score composed by Death Cab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard and noted musician Steve Fisk (Pell Mell, Pigenhed).

Perhaps more important to the emotional landscape of the movie, however, is Son's use of the music that shaped Cobain's career and personality — his life as told through the lens of a mix tape. The choices Schnack uses in the movie are sometimes surprising (Queen and Creedence Clearwater Revival, for example), although a few noted Cobain favorites (the Vaselines, Mudhoney) and idols (R.E.M., David Bowie) appear. The cumulative effect is even more poignant, because Nirvana's iconic visages aren't even shown until the very end of the film — when audiences are finally faced with Cobain's 1994 suicide.

New Times: What struck me at first was the big names on the soundtrack — Bowie, Iggy, R.E.M. How did you get the rights to their music?

A still shot from the Kurt Cobain documentary About a Son.
Wyatt Troll
A still shot from the Kurt Cobain documentary About a Son.

AJ Schnack: We just asked, really. My intention all along was to use music by the bands that Kurt was influenced by — in part because Kurt makes that approach kind of easy, because he was so well-known for talking about his influences and championing bands that he was interested in. And also because one of the things that made Kurt great as an artist was he really took his influences and threw different genres of music into this blender in his head and made something that was, in some ways, a combination of a lot of different things. That was one of the things that made Nirvana so interesting, his writing so interesting.

Then the question is: "Will any of these people let us use their music?" [laughs] And actually, the three that you mentioned — Bowie, Iggy, and R.E.M. — all said yes in a day. That made the rest of it much easier. When they came on, it gave a lot of credibility to the whole project and to our ability to get other people to come on.

NT: Creedence Clearwater Revival really surprised me. I would never have thought of them as an influence. But when hearing their music in the movie, it actually makes total sense: Nirvana did have their folkier, storytelling moments. It was interesting seeing the bits and pieces of the artists that Kurt liked coming out in Nirvana's music.

Schnack:I love that, too. I mean, being from St. Louis, the Creedence and stuff . . . I grew up with such a Southern-rock style influence playing all the time on radio stations. When I learned that Kurt played in a Creedence cover band — I mean, I don't think I went to a wedding in the '70s or '80s where the band didn't play four or five Creedence songs — I just thought that was great. I really hoped they would be down with letting us use a song. And they were.

NT: As a filmmaker, using music as a way to tell your story — music that wasn't the music of the subject — did it pose any specific challenges for you?

Schnack: Well, not necessarily, because the approach of the entire film was so different. It would certainly be hard if the intention from the start was to use a lot of different sources of Kurt in interviews, a lot of different sources of Kurt video. It would be weird if you were seeing him playing, but you weren't playing any Nirvana music. The whole idea that you weren't really going to see Kurt until the end of the film, and you were only going to use [photographer] Charles Peterson's photographs . . . that was a question of whether or not you could put a Nirvana song in at the very end of the film — which is something I had planned to do, and that we had talked about doing. When we actually got to that point of the editing process, it just didn't fit, really. We came to realize more and more, it wasn't a film about Nirvana — it was a film about an ordinary guy who had some amazing talent but who was surrounded by these demons. It was much more about a journey through life — and in some ways, a study of depression. It didn't make sense to end with a Nirvana song.

NT:I thought it was more powerful to all of a sudden see these pictures of Nirvana at the end. It made everything much more real, and it was so much more powerful. Everyone knows Nirvana at this point; everyone knows those songs. What would it really add?

Schnack: I really want people to go home and listen to Nirvana. I do think, hearing all of these different bands that were important to Kurt, I think you'll start hearing other things in his music. I tried to cut those photographs at the end to a Nirvana song. And it just didn't work at all. It felt like it was a triumphant moment or something — which didn't really track where you are emotionally at that point in the film, where you're really requiring a quiet moment.

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