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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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage