Will Cobain Documentary Showcase Musical Artistry or Personal Demons?

A new documentary about Kurt Cobain airs on HBO next month. But even though it promises deep insight into Cobain’s personal life, it might not really show us the man behind the legend or the musical legacy he left, a problem that many rock documentaries face, according to John Covach, director of the Institute for Popular Music at the University of Rochester. 

“I have a sense that this documentary, while attempting to get behind the myth of Kurt Cobain, may actually end up further reinforcing it—or maybe create a varied version of the myth,” Covach says. "Do we ever get to the guy who was thoroughly musical and artistic, or is it just the sensational elements—drug use, stormy romance, brooding depression and tragic suicide?”

The potentially sensational retelling of Cobain’s story in this documentary echoes an issue in many rock documentaries: they tend to only focus on the most entertaining or compelling aspects of the film’s subject. In Cobain’s case, that seems to be his troubled life and untimely death.

“Rock documentaries tend to be historically flavored entertainment, heavy on the dimension of personal drama and fairly light on any insight into the music,” says Covach. “They can be useful, but they can also be very misleading.”

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University of Rochester
Professor of Music Theory; Director, Institute for Popular Music