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Weekly Alibi Smells Like Screen Spirit

By Michael Henningsen

AUGUST 31, 1998:  Having read Who Killed Kurt, authored by Courtney Love's estranged father, Hank Harrison, and subsequently being convinced that the various conspiracy theories trumped up in the book were just that, it was with an almost overwhelming sense of skepticism that I attended the screening of Nick Broomfield's controversial documentary, Kurt and Courtney. The film was dropped from the roster at this year's Sundance Film Festival amid much grumbling from Love's lawyers about the very real possibility of libel and copyright action. According to Broomfield, the ensuing snafu backfired on the Love camp, affording him untold publicity and, in a way, corroborating his claims about her methods of manipulation and alleged attempts to quash information regarding her "involvement" in Cobain's 1994 death, officially a suicide.

With all the rabid media attention surrounding Kurt and Courtney, due in part to both the decision by Sundance not to screen it and the bold move by San Francisco's Roxie Theater to open it a month later despite similar legal threats, it was easy to assume the film was nothing more than a celluloid version of Harrison's book and a coalescence of other weakly constructed theories about who actually killed Cobain and why. But Broomfield's documentary is as much about his own perilous, pursuit of his difficult subjects as it is about the subjects themselves. Pressed by the film's investors to put on paper his "angle," Broomfield admits early on that he didn't have one. He was simply trying to go into the story to talk to whomever he needed in order to piece together the shadowy tale of Kurt, Courtney, their marriage, his death, her sudden rise to fame and, ultimately, to prove or disprove some of the rumor and fabrication that has sheathed it all.

The question of whether he succeeds becomes moot almost from the very beginning of the film, when Broomfield-- narrating over a scene featuring Cobain's aunt playing cassette tapes of the two-year-old rock star-to-be eerily singing excerpts of Monkees' and Beatles' songs--explains that he was forced to drop all of Cobain's music, including early pre-Nirvana demos, from the film as a result of a cease and desist letter from EMI Vice President Bruce Scavuzzo.

The "film they didn't want you to see" seems at times more like the "film that couldn't be made." Broomfield's attempts at getting an audience with Love, his would-be star, are thwarted again and again, forcing him to resort to taking testimony from a diverse cross-section of people whose reliability is often questionable. Most of the couple's former friends who are interviewed seem somewhat delusional when they describe their relationships to and experiences with Cobain and Love--possibly because almost all of them also seem to be either strung out or freshly dosed. Private detective Tom Grant, who was hired by Love to find Cobain after he disappeared from the Exodus Recovery Clinic and Marina del Rey, Calif., comes across almost pitifully. The detective tries desperately to convince Broomfield that Cobain was murdered based on some solid and some circumstantial evidence he accumulated during the seven months he was on Love's payroll.

Surprisingly,Broomfield remains neutral throughout the film, simply allowing the trail of evidence to go its own way and narrating us through scenes shot in a dusky haze in several of Cobain's former hometowns, haunts and hang-outs. At one point, the filmmaker/ director actually seems on the verge of scrapping the project when evidence refuting the conspiracy theories strays toward the insurmountable. But then, the film's impetus isn't to further those theories-- rather it is intended to be an up-close and personal docu-drama. It is that overriding component that makes Kurt and Courtney engaging and altogether effective.

In some of Broomfield's past docu work, his subjects (Heidi Fleiss and serial killer Aileen Wuornos among them) have emerged almost charismatic. But with the difficult Love being the only living subject in this film, Kurt and Courtney is steeped in sadness. Even Broomfield admits the resulting film is darker and more disturbing than he had imagined. In the defining scene, Love is filmed as she addresses an ACLU dinner. Following her brief speech, the director becomes a subject by virtually storming the stage and questioning the selection of Love as an ACLU spokesperson. It is a pivotal moment because it suddenly makes clear the fact that what began as a portrait of Cobain has spiraled into a stark documentary on the issues of censorship, control and manipulation.

Kurt and Courtney supersedes all preconception and hype, and in the sense that it's really a film about itself, it's quite stunning. Rather than attempting to rationalize a world Broomfield describes as beyond rational control, he chose to let the subjects and circumstances, and therefore the film, move about freely. The result is often unnerving, thought-provoking and monumental. At times, it's so biting that one almost yearns for sensationalism and glamorization--the absence of which make Kurt and Courtney a must-see.


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