Not too many rock documentaries are as "fans only" as AJ Schnack's Kurt Cobain: About A Son, which pairs fragments of old Cobain audio interviews (all conducted by Michael Azerrad) with new footage of the places Cobain lived and worked. If this were a documentary about John Nobody, only the cinematic formalists would care—and even they might gripe at how Schnack often falls back on overly literal images, and cycles through his northwestern cityscapes and subdivisions so restlessly that they blur together, becoming just something to look at.
But since the movie is about Cobain, what Schnack shows matters—at least to people who care about Nirvana. Hearing Cobain talk about how his stomach pain got so bad that "I wanted to blow my fuckin' head off" will sting fans a little. And those same fans should gobble up all the little Nirvana-related revelations that Cobain drops: about how he felt he deserved more money for his songwriting contributions, and how he was annoyed that bassist Krist Novoselic never laughed at his jokes, and how he would've liked to have taken the band in a poppier direction. Throughout About A Son, Cobain comes off as by turns shrewd and naïve—sweet, yet kind of jerky. He clearly had an understanding of how to reach people with his music, even when it wasn't exactly the kind of music he wanted to be making. But he was also enough of a blinkered idealist to insist, rather stupidly, that kids born at the end of the '60s were "the last innocent generation."
Had Schnack integrated these audio clips into a more conventional talking-head-and-performance-clip documentary—and assuming Courtney Love would've turned loose of the necessary music rights—About A Son could've been the definitive portrait of Cobain and the whole Seattle grunge scene. But the direction Schnack goes in has its own merit, and his methodology achieves some amazing effects. Slipping bits of a Queen song beneath footage from an Aberdeen lumber mill creates a sense of the cultural space in which Cobain grew up, as does running proto-grunge music beneath shots of brightly lit high school hallways. The film's animated interludes really work too, especially the one that accompanies Cobain's ruminations on human anatomy textbooks, and his fascination with the mechanics of the body (and how drugs affect it). About A Son may not let in anybody who doesn't already have one foot in Nirvana's doorway, but those people are invited in fully, to experience the contradictions and preoccupations of a man whose music defined his era.