Gilbey on Film: casting Kurt Cobain

Exclusive details of the forthcoming movie about the life of the Nirvana frontman.

Nirvana enthusiasts may run weeping to find solace in their original vinyl copies of Bleach at the news that a Kurt Cobain movie is on the cards. Or a second Kurt Cobain movie, if you count Gus van Sant's woozy Last Days (which began life as a film about the Nirvana frontman -- much as van Sant's Elephant started out as a Harmony Korine-scripted picture specifically about the Columbine shootings -- before mutating into something more amorphous).

But I think grungeheads (who will be wincing even now at my use of the word "grunge") can rest easy. The film is being written by Oren Moverman, the 44-year-old Israeli film-maker best known in this country for co-scripting Todd Haynes's fractured Bob Dylan biopic I'm Not There. He received a Best Original Screenplay nomination (with Alessandro Camon) for The Messenger, about two men working in the US army's casualty notification service, which Moverman also directed. (The film has yet to open in the UK.)

I spoke to Moverman last week, when he revealed exclusively this information about the Kurt Cobain biopic, which he is currently writing:

Working on the Cobain script is an enormous responsibility. You're basically saying you're going to find a two-hour representation in movie form of one man's entire life. It happens to be an extraordinary, creative life and I've got to stand by it and say, "This is how it happened." Well, you can't do that. Even with someone like Cobain, who only lived 27 years, there was so much going on, he was so complicated. The question is: how do you fit that into a movie?

It'll be raw and chaotic, which is what Cobain's life was like, but it's more linear than I'm Not There, in the writing stage at least; it'll take you from A to Z, it's not a jigsaw puzzle. The most important thing with a biopic is to let the subject dictate the form. You have to take your cues from the subject, and find what will enrich our understanding of him and his work. Musical biopics, or ones about artists, like Pollock or Love Is the Devil, they address the same impulse -- to find out how a person becomes creative, and how he or she arrives at the output they give to the world and which makes them famous. It's about creativity, the creative mind: what's the story behind someone who lives that life? What don't we know?

That's my approach to Cobain, because there's so much I didn't even know. I realised this is a fascinating person who has a side most people didn't even know about. People know the shortcut version -- he took a lot of heroin, wrote "Smells Like Teen Spirit", married Courtney Love, became the biggest rock star in the world and killed himself. Those known things about him are, to me, the least interesting. I mean, I liked Last Days, and the way it was influenced by the idea of what Kurt's final days were like, but for me the suicide is not the most interesting thing about Kurt Cobain. It's the life that I'm aiming to look at.

What's interesting is what he did as an artist when he thought no one was looking -- not just as a musical artist, but a visual one. Also, while his relationship with celebrity was different to Dylan's, and you want to try to reflect that, his reluctance was not dissimilar. It's that push-pull desire to be so famous, yet not really wanting it. It will be about a man's life, his creative impulses, where they come from and what they say about him and his country, the world he walks into. Hopefully it will leave you with images you've never had before of this man and what he's done.

Moverman told me that he had previously warned Haynes off the idea of making a Dylan biopic when the idea was first mooted. "Being the visionary that I am," he said jokingly,

but also the careful friend, I said to him I thought it was a really bad idea. He asked why and I replied that if he makes a film about Bob Dylan it's basically going to be a film about casting, about the question of: "Where did you find this amazing guy who looks like Dylan, sounds like Dylan?" The truth of the matter is that even Dylan couldn't tell you who he is. I said, "Wouldn't it be more interesting if you had, say, ten different characters and they weren't Bob Dylan but they all played different aspects of his life? And together they could add up to the Bob Dylan experience." Todd looked at me and said: "Now that sounds like a Todd Haynes film!"

I pointed out that any film about Kurt Cobain will need to overcome exactly the same sort of hurdle. "Absolutely," Moverman agreed.

That's the worst part of it. Because there's only one person who can really play him, and he's dead. Other than the actual person, everything you do is imitation. It's a terrible thing because you want to tell a story, and be as interesting as possible, and yet you have this limitation which most biopics labour under, I'm Not There being an exception, which is that someone has to look and sound like the subject. How do you transcend the casting part of that, and make a movie interesting and deep enough that you can forget that?

I can't wait to find out.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis