Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Murder, He Filmed?

Nick Broomfield looks at Love and death in "Kurt and Courtney."

By Matt Ashare

JUNE 15, 1998:  Most of us still remember her as the accident waiting to happen who married the drug-tarnished icon of a generation, the girl who wanted to have the most cake and eat it too, the lipstick-smeared daughter of hippy parents and punk-rock passions with her kinderwhore pastels, imperfect profile, and a belligerent attitude toward the press that made Sean Penn seem like a pretty nice guy. That version of Courtney Love loudly presided over the first family of grunge for two short years. Then, while the country was still mourning the suicide of Kurt Cobain and wondering how she would ever be able to raise their child on her own, she dove right back into the mosh pit screaming, "I'm Miss World, somebody kill me . . . "

It hasn't been particularly easy to reconcile that image with the newly refined Courtney, who emerged from The People Vs. Larry Flint an apparently drug-free, reasonably well-mannered, plastic-surgery-enhanced, Versace-wearing movie star -- least of all for Courtney herself. She more than anyone else seems acutely aware that those elements of her life which first brought her to the attention of the media -- the drugs, the bad behavior, the marriage to Kurt Cobain -- are the very things that threaten to darken the spotlight now trained on her. And in the age of vicarious media thrills, this has made her a particularly tempting topic for a filmmaker like Nick Broomfield, a British seat-of-his-pants documentarian who prefers stalking unwilling subjects like Margaret Thatcher in Michael Moore fashion to civilized Barbara Walters-style sit downs, and who'd rather be down in the sleazy trenches of an New York S&M parlor or a Nevada whorehouse than up in some sanitized Hollywood sound studio.

The title of Broomfield's new film, in case you haven't heard, is Kurt and Courtney. But the real subject is, of course, Courtney -- the bad old Courtney of grunge legend, who, the film suggests, is alive and well, living behind the liposuctioned facade of the new Courtney, protected by a Swiss Guard of publicists, image consultants, attorneys, and bodyguards, not to mention the influential entertainment-industry executives who have profited and stand to profit from her work. To hear Broomfield tell it, Courtney Love enjoys more power than Roger Smith, the General Motors CEO Michael Moore dogged in Roger & Me. In fact, she's just more media savvy than Smith or Broomfield, though Broomfield is proving a quick study in his efforts to get publicity for his film, which was banned from screening at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year because he'd failed to secure the rights to a Nirvana song and a Hole tune that were part of the soundtrack. (In a clever bit of self-referential filmmaking, the final version of Kurt and Courtney includes a voiceover by Broomfield pointing out where the songs in question were deleted.)

Unlike Roger Smith, Courtney doesn't wield the kind of direct power over people's lives that comes with being able to shut down entire factories, so she automatically cuts a more sympathetic figure. And as a private citizen she's within her rights to implore, pressure, and cajole her friends and associates not to speak to the press about her personal life, and also to use the legal system to prevent the screening of a film like Kurt and Courtney. So one of Broomfield's central accusations -- that Courtney is engaging in some form of censorship -- doesn't hold much water. Kenneth Starr may have muddied that water a bit, but we all have to ask ourselves whether a prosecutor has the right to subpoena the details of Monica Lewinsky's book-purchasing habits, never mind whether an undeputized documentarian should automatically be given access to a celebrity's life off camera.

It's hard to imagine what Kurt and Courtney might have turned into had Courtney cooperated. But it's even harder to imagine Courtney cooperating with a film like Kurt and Courtney because, well, it's hardest of all to imagine Broomfield making such a film without getting tangled up with the loose band of conspiracy theorists who allege that Kurt Cobain's "suicide" may have been a murder orchestrated by Courtney. And so the conspiracy theory joins celebrity censorship of the media as the dominant and most compelling subtext of the film. Which is not to say that the theory (or semblance of a theory) is itself particularly compelling. Chief among its supporters are Courtney's obviously disturbed biological father, Hank Harrison, a shamelessly self-promoting heavyset man who appears to have been amassing evidence against his daughter since she was a toddler, and Tom Grant, a private investigator originally hired by Courtney to track down the MIA Cobain in the days before his death but who has since turned against his former client with the desperate yet measured vengeance of an Ahab self-destructively hunting the great whale.

Harrison survives two fairly harmless encounters with Broomfield's camera before he snaps during a third, admitting he once favored disciplining his daughter with pit bulls (a particularly inventive twist on tough love) and bellowing, "I'll keep kicking your ass!", the "ass" in question belonging not to Broomfield but to Courtney. Grant, who's interviewed behind the wheel of his car, fares a good deal better: he retains his composure even when forced to admit that after more than a year of dogged digging, he's yet to unearth real evidence of Courtney's involvement in a murder plot. You can read all about Grant's investigation in Who Killed Kurt Cobain?: The Mysterious Death of An Icon, a rather poorly written piece of investigative journalism by Ian Halperin and Max Wallace that was published by Birch Lane Press earlier this year. (Or on the Internet, just about everywhere.) But I'll save you the trouble: in the book it's alleged that there were no fingerprints on the gun that killed Kurt, that the level of heroin in his bloodstream was in some people's opinion sufficient to have prevented him from firing a gun, and that Kurt's suicide note may have been doctored in some way. There are also reports that Kurt may have been having an affair and/or preparing to divorce Courtney, and that there existed an unfinished will "disowning Courtney." But mostly the book reveals that there are a lot of fringe players in the Kurt and Courtney tragedy who really don't like Courtney very much and who seem to believe she's capable of anything.

Wearing a pair of clunky headphones and wielding a boom microphone as if it were a truth-baring torch, Broomfield encounters with a wry sort of bemused fascination a number of these people on his journey into the heart of Seattle's post-Kurt darkness. Most of them bring to mind the bleak characters who populated Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho -- alienated products of a dysfunctional society. There's Rozz Rezabek, one of Courtney's exes, who comes off as one of the film's more credibly damning character witnesses until he reveals that he's mad at Courtney for dissing him in some interview. There's one of the couple's former nannies, who's so timid you can't tell whether it's fear of telling the truth or lying that's weighing so heavily on her conscience. And there's Kurt's buddy Dylan Carlson, who looks about as bad as Keith Richards did in the early '70s and still doesn't understand why Kurt would want to quit heroin.

Courtney makes a couple of unwitting cameos -- one in a clip from a confrontational television interview, another at an ACLU reception. And so does Kurt, in photos and home movies of the artist as a young punk, and in an uncharacteristically upbeat interview. But it's the bit players in the couple's lives who are the real stars of Kurt and Courtney. Among them: the fat, bearded, and drunk El Duce (a/k/a Eldon Hoke), the now dead member of the porn-punk Mentors, who claims Courtney offered him 50 grand to bump off Kurt; a skittish scenester who promises to produce pictures that never materialize of Kurt and Courtney shooting up; and a bumbling pair of tabloid reporters -- the Keystone Koparazzi, if you will -- who are too in awe of Courtney's celebrity to confront her.

All in all there's nothing here to persuade even the most zealous Marcia Clark disciple to open a case against Courtney, but plenty of fodder for the kind of fascinating films Broomfield likes to make. Indeed, you get the sense that even if Courtney hadn't gone to such lengths to curtail Broomfield's access, he still would have sought out characters like Carlson, Hoke, and Rezabek, not because of what they reveal about Kurt or Courtney, but because of what they tell us about the damage that infests the fringes rock stardom, celebrity, and drugs. This is the underworld that Courtney has tried so desperately, and successfully, to leave behind. And though the new place she's found herself in has its own set of problems (like meddling documentarians), you really can't blame her for wanting to cut all ties with the past Broomfield illuminates. You also can't blame Broomfield for wanting to shine some light into a murk that surrounded the king and queen of a once thriving alternative nation -- a murk that has lingered even in the wake of Kurt's death and Courtney's massive makeover.


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