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About a Song

In the new Kurt Cobain documentary, About a Son, the trio's music is noticeably absent. Instead, director A.J. Schnack lets Cobain tell his own life story by splicing raspy narration taken from phone interviews between the musician and author Michael Azerrad with rich scenes of people and places from the...
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In the new Kurt Cobain documentary, About a Son, the trio's music is noticeably absent. Instead, director A.J. Schnack lets Cobain tell his own life story by splicing raspy narration taken from phone interviews between the musician and author Michael Azerrad with rich scenes of people and places from the towns in which Cobain lived. This sense of eerie disconnection and beyond-the-grave atmosphere is reinforced by a desolate, floating-in-murky-water score composed by Death Cab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard and noted musician Steve Fisk (Pell Mell, Pigeonhed).

Perhaps more important to the emotional landscape of the movie, however, is Son's use of the music that shaped Cobain's career and personality — his life as told through the lens of a figurative mixtape. (The About a Son soundtrack was released last month on Barsuk Records.) The songs featured in the movie are sometimes surprising (Queen and Creedence Clearwater Revival, for example), although a few noted Cobain favorites (the Vaselines, Mudhoney) and idols (R.E.M., David Bowie) appear. The cumulative effect is even more poignant, because Nirvana's iconic visages aren't even shown until the end of the film — when the viewer is finally faced with Cobain's 1994 suicide.

New Times: What struck me at first was the big names on the soundtrack — Bowie, Iggy, and R.E.M. How did you get the rights to the music?

A.J. Schnack: We just asked, really. My intention all along was to use music by the bands that Kurt was influenced by — in part because Kurt makes that approach kind of easy, because he was so well-known for talking about his influences and championing bands that he was interested in. And also because one of the things that made Kurt great as an artist was that he really took his influences and threw different genres of music into this blender in his head. That was one of the things that made Nirvana so interesting. Then the question is: "Will any of these people let us use their music?" And actually, the three that you mentioned — Bowie, Iggy, and R.E.M. — all said yes in a day. That made the rest of it much easier. When they came on, it gave a lot of credibility to the whole project.

Creedence Clearwater Revival really surprised me, as I would never have thought of them as an influence.

I love that too. When I learned that Kurt played in a Creedence cover band — I mean, I don't think I went to a wedding in the '70s or '80s where the band didn't play four or five Creedence songs — I just thought that was great. I really hoped they would be down with letting us use a song. And they were.

As a filmmaker, using music as a way to tell your story — that wasn't the music of the subject — did it pose any specific challenges for you?

Well, not necessarily, because the approach of the entire film was so different. The whole idea [was] that you weren't really going to see Kurt until the end of the film. We came to realize more and more it wasn't a film about Nirvana — it was a film about an ordinary guy who had some amazing talent but who was surrounded by these demons. It was much more about a journey through life — and, in some ways, a study of depression. It didn't make sense to end with a Nirvana song.

Everyone knows Nirvana at this point; everyone knows those songs. What would it really add?

I really want people to go home and listen to Nirvana. I do think hearing all of these different bands that were important to Kurt, I think you'll start hearing other things in his music.

Did you ever see them live?

I never saw them live. I had two chances, and both times I blew it off to go see other bands, which I can't even remember the names of now. [A laugh.] [I figured] I'd have many opportunities to see Nirvana again, but I may never get a chance to see this unnamed band that's playing their first American show from Scotland or something.

It's a good thing you don't remember, because it would be embarrassing if it was someone who was really terrible.

I'm sure it was any random indie band that for a brief moment was the new Bettie Serveert or something.

Once you had the songs in place, was it difficult to figure out what song went where and in what part of the movie?

Difficult's not really the right word. It was definitely a puzzle, because there are several aspects to this. One is that I had a stack of CDs of Kurt's influences — which was really fun; you could hear all these different kinds of music. I would go through and say, "OK, I wanted to make sure that each of these parts of his life are representing." The arena-rock stuff he was listening to in Aberdeen, the new-wave stuff... I wanted to make sure the stuff in Olympia [was included]; a lot of it was import and female-driven. And of course, the early punk rock. You have ideas of certain things you wanted to use, of certain bands you definitely wanted to get in there. Even if you wanted to use somebody's, it would have to fit emotionally with the moment. There are bands I love that I know were important to Kurt that I couldn't find the right place for. You discover things too. I don't know how many times I listened to [Queen's] News of the World and had never thought of "It's Late" as being one of the great songs on this record. When I listened to it in terms of trying to figure out what I wanted to put in the movie, I came across "It's Late" for a moment when he's talking about his estrangement from his father. Even though that's a song about romantic love, it fit so well. And now that's so obvious to me that it's one of the greatest Queen songs ever. You rediscover things that were right in front of your nose all along.

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