Film and TV

Witless in Seattle

There are cheap thrills aplenty in Nick Broomfield's scandal-enhanced, self-serving wreck of a documentary, Kurt and Courtney. For one thing, its out-of-the-picture protagonist is Kurt Cobain, the latest dead junkie rock star to be canonized as "the voice of his generation" before the body was even cold. For another, its villainous second fiddle is Courtney Love, the foul-mouthed ex-stripper, two-fisted slugger, third-rate rock queen and widely reviled widow who--for those who choose to believe it--has recently been transformed by plastic surgeons and assorted image-tweakers into a sleek, silk-draped movie star who can air-kiss on Oscar night with the best of them.

Despite the hype, though, Kurt and Courtney tells us precious little about Love and almost nothing about Cobain. Its bizarre collection of interviewees--demolished Seattle junkies, deluded grunge-world wannabes and frightened nannies--are about as believable in their stoned conjectures and outright fantasies as death row killers. And after flirting with the inevitable conspiracy theorists and suggesting that Cobain's 1994 death was a case of murder, not suicide, Broomfield pulls his punches on that one.

He does provide a lot of side show--desperate addictions, fiery angers and unbridled excesses--and enough bad fathers, opportunist psychopaths and pathetic burnouts to supply Hard Copy and the Jerry Springer Show well into the next century.

Broomfield, an Englishman whose previous subjects have included serial killer Aileen Wuornos, Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss and the inner workings of a New York S&M club, clearly has a taste for exotic lowlife. Fine. But as a filmmaker, he's invariably clumsy and largely witless, like a rookie reporter with lots of random notes who can't make them into a story. So Nick just keeps piling on the lurid sensations, hoping they'll add up to something. Meanwhile, he likes to insist, on camera, that he's some kind of brave seeker of truth at any cost. Fact is, he doesn't much like doing his homework--or doesn't know how.

On the other hand, he grasps marketing. When the famously vengeful Love, who saw Broomfield from the start as a hatchet man and refused to be interviewed, managed to block a showing of the finished picture at Sundance (on the pretext that it contained two unlicensed Nirvana songs), he yanked the music and booked the independent Roxie Theater in San Francisco to finally show the thing. Predictably, Love's people raised another stink. Bingo! Instant media frenzy. Instant succes de scandale. Despite the fourth-rate clone groups blaring away on the soundtrack.

Aside from that, just what do we have here?
We have narrator Nick, ever the worshipful fan, telling us that Cobain was "a brilliant artist," "a god in his own right" and "an inspiration to millions," then revealing to us that the inspiration to millions mimicked Beatles songs when he was two, once assembled a collage of diseased-vagina pictures and used to delight in shooting a pellet gun at the building across the street from his house. This last prompts our intrepid reporter to march right in there with camera and mike blazing to get the scoop, whatever it is. He's unceremoniously told to get out.

This is the same guy, the same amateur psycho-biographer, who asks an old Cobain girlfriend: "So, was he, uh, sort of fascinated by fetuses?" Hey, Nick. Shut up.

We have Cobain's old friend Amy, her face all blank bewilderment, struggling to remember his qualities. "I'm trying to think of, like, the right adjective for his personality," she says. We have his best friend, one Dylan Carlson, his forehead a mass of angry red scabs, struggling to remember anything: "I don't think he was necessarily, like, planning to kill himself...I mean, I don't know." And why should Cobain want to give up heroin, Dylan muses. He had plenty of money to buy it, didn't he?

We have a whacked-out Neanderthal rocker who calls himself "El Duce" bragging in his junk-strewn front yard that Love once offered him $50,000 to kill Cobain. For a cold beer, El Duce promises, he'll tell even more. We have a conspiracy-obsessed ex-cop, a jilted Love lover and a pair of bumbling L.A. "stalkarazzi"--Al and Jack (he's the one in the purple mask)--with whom Broomfield hooks up in hopes of cornering the elusive Ms. Love for an interview. Good luck: The Spider eats both flies, and Nicky-boy, too, when he makes a fumbling attempt to confront her at an ACLU dinner.

That's right. In an age when low-wattage celebrities can constantly reupholster their images, Courtney Love can become the ACLU's guest of honor.

Looking for the purely revelatory, authentically scary moments in Kurt and Courtney? They're few and far between. But Broomfield's brief interviews with Love's father, Hank Harrison, will do. Part self-promoter (he's written two highly confused "books" on Cobain's death), part bird of prey, this ham-faced con man revels (once he gets warmed up) in telling us what an evil, violent wretch his daughter is, how he once bought pitbulls to keep her away from the house, how well he understands her every ugly thought. "I got her number," Harrison says with real menace. "I got her nailed." It isn't easy to sympathize with an ambitious, calculating shrew like Love; it is easy to see that the apple didn't fall far from the tree.

Otherwise, what we have here is a murky "documentary" about Kurt Cobain that contains none of his music and even less of his life, and a back-handed indictment of the chameleonic Courtney Love that neither gets the goods on her nor lets her off the hook. "I was beginning to doubt everything," Broomfield says, as his botched quest for truth, clarity and art stumbles to a close. Indeed. Let's hope he had the good sense to include his own abilities in that world of doubt.

Kurt and Courtney.
Documentary produced by Tine Van Den Brande and Michael D'Acosta. Directed by Nick Broomfield.

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Bill Gallo
Contact: Bill Gallo