How 'Montage Of Heck' Changed My Stance On Mental Health And Music

by Caitlin Gilbert

Sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll: We all anticipated there to be plenty of such in the documentary, "Montage of Heck," which aired on HBO May 4, and is based on the life of Nirvana frontman and grunge rock pioneer Kurt Cobain.

And, we weren't disappointed. Courtney Love's boobs made several appearances, as well, which was equally unsurprising.

Also as expected, the documentary sheds some light on Cobain's struggle with depression. Two decades have passed now since he took his own life, and in pure rock 'n' roll fashion, this immortalized Kurt as a beautifully tragic icon.

Cobain's suicide is largely attributable to his creative brilliance, like many other musicians who had similarly untimely deaths.

It's a common occurrence in our culture for them to be both idolized and mourned as these passing comets of incandescent talent. However, the depiction of tortured artists as such martyrs of music seems to romanticize the underlying signs of mental illness.

Debates have swirled around the origins of depression. On opposite sides of the fence are the communities of art and science, arguing as to whether the creative mind is more prone to these suicidal thoughts, or if it is simply poor mental health.

Clinical studies would most likely uncover this as being a result of genetics or one's environment. It's an inexplicable tragedy of which we are trying to make sense.

The cause for my fixation on Cobain's depression is the recent suicide of a loved one has left my family reeling from the shock and clouded by the lingering grief.

No one is more desperate to find answers than the ones who are left behind. Additionally, by what I can only assume to be sheer coincidence, May is Mental Health Awareness Month.

This fact makes now the opportune time to attempt to sift through the theories and diagnoses and to offer up my own perspective on the seeds of depression and the impact it had upon Kurt Cobain's life, music and death.

Although mental illness isn't directly addressed in the documentary, Cobain's struggle with his inner demons is revealed through his journal entries, disturbing sketches and home videos.

The releasing of such private details by his family was done with the hope that piecing together these small glimpses into his mind would reveal Cobain's awe-inspiring ingenuity, and show his perspective about the world.

Cobain's daughter, Frances Bean Cobain, worked closely with director, Brett Morgen to create a raw, uncensored portrayal of him.

In an interview with Rolling Stone, Frances explained her strong desire to strip away all of the illusion and folklore that has been built up around her father's memory in order to humanize him.

She refers to her vision for "Montage of Heck" as "emotional journalism," a chance to tell Kurt's story the way he would want it told.

The recounting of Cobain's childhood shows his development into a radical nonconformist. His irrational hostility led to Kurt's estrangement from his family, and his overwhelmingly introspective nature caused him to alienate himself from his peers.

These behaviors sound fairly normal within the realm of teenage angst, but his journal entries and audio recordings give us a better idea of the great disconnect Cobain felt from the rest of the world and how tormented he was by it.

In one entry, he writes of the hatred he felt for his classmates "for they were so phony," and in an audio recording he explains his decision to drop out of school because by then he felt so different that he had withdrawn into himself to the brink of insanity.

And on the 6th day, Kurt discovered punk rock.

After begging a friend to put together a mixtape of punk rock for him, Kurt got his first taste of the music that would come to be his outlet of expression, while he simultaneously reinvented the genre.

His initial reaction to punk rock could probably be summed up as "where have you been all my life?"

Kurt writes in his journal that punk rock voiced how he felt socially and politically. Additionally, it enabled him to tap into all of his anger.

One of the most chilling anecdotes from Kurt Cobain's teenage years is a journal entry that describes his failed suicide attempt.

High school morphed itself into one big humiliation that he couldn't get past. He drank, he smoked and he sat on the train tracks with cement blocks in his lap, ready to take his exit from the world.

He watched that mechanic beacon of death come hurtling toward him, only to have the train shift to another set of tracks, sparing him.

Kurt wrote that in that moment he knew he did, in fact, have things to live for. But everything he mentioned was in the near future.

My impression was that Kurt knew he still wanted death, but that he wanted to accomplish a few more things before he went.

That simple twist of fate could easily be misconstrued as some kind of predestination in that Kurt couldn't yet be taken from this earth until he had left behind a musical legacy.

It does make you wonder what rock music might look like today if he had been successful.

From a mental health perspective, it could be argued that this early attempt at taking his own life, in addition to a history of suicide in his family, drug addiction, low self-esteem and what many speculated was undiagnosed bipolar disorder, made Cobain merely a ticking time bomb.

And let's not forget the obvious allusions to suicide in several of his lyrics.

To be honest, I don't care much for either approach in making sense of Kurt Cobain's death.

Kurt was featured in a study centered on the fact that several of the most influential people in history suffered from mental illness.

Reading through this list, which included figures I had idolized since childhood, like Emily Dickinson and F. Scott Fitzgerald, it put a bitter taste in my mouth.

These bursts of inspiration, which led to their literary and artistic triumphs, were accredited to the euphoric energy and overconfidence that are typical symptoms of manic depression.

In turn, that would mean that Cobain's notoriously raucous on-stage displays and the intense focus with which he would strum his guitar for hours to perfect that signature riff were simply products of a manic episode.

Diagnosing his behavior like someone from a clinician's case file is an insult to his talent.

However, I also don't really agree with the way we've molded Kurt Cobain into this fabled rock legend who went down in a blaze of glory.

And that's really why I feel like they did a damn good job with "Montage of Heck."

There are no efforts made to gloss over Cobain's history of depression or his drug addiction. But they also don't fixate on the details of his mental illness.

What I enjoyed most about Morgen's portrayal of Kurt Cobain is that he comes at him from all angles: disaffected youth, junkie, rock icon, husband and what probably terrified him most: father.

This documentary doesn't wrap itself up in that pretty little bow of conclusion that we've all been conditioned to expect.

The screen simply cuts to black after Cobain's performance on "MTV Unplugged." 

At first you are a little surprised that there isn't any description of the aftermath of his death, or commentary from Love on its impact on her.

This is intended by Morgen to be symbolic of the abruptness of his suicide. It also represents how those of us who have lost someone to depression will never find the resolutions we want.

This is all the more reason to celebrate a life rather than be consumed with the what-ifs and whys.