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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Why Prince wanted to make his listeners feel inadequate

Prince aimed to make his listeners want to have him or be him. He did not like them to consider themselves his equals.

Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex and God in the Music of Prince, by Ben Greenman
Faber & Faber, 304pp, £17.99

During his mid-Eighties imperial phase, stretching from the eruption of “When Doves Cry” to the corruption of “Alphabet St”, Prince was a global object of desire: hyper-talented, cool, funny and charming. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to have him or be him. Have him or be him, covetousness or envy – those two reactions are more than a little negative. And more than a little negative is how I felt about both Prince and Ben Greenman when I got to the end of Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex and God in the Music of Prince, a book as cumbersome as its title. Published a year after his death, it didn’t make me hate Prince as much as Blake Bailey’s monumental takedown Cheever: a Life made me despise John Cheever, but it came close.

The Prince we meet in anecdotes and legal depositions from both before and after his imperial phase is cranky, petty-minded and grasping. This may be because Greenman, who contributes to the New Yorker and has assisted George Clinton and Brian Wilson with their memoirs, is a much more entertaining writer when ripping Prince to bits than when attempting to build a shrine from his mortal remains. Here Greenman is, in flat-footed praise mode yet inadvertently dissing his subject: “From Stevie Wonder, he took mastery. From David Bowie, he took mystery. All of these influences were ingested and digested until Prince, nourished, went about making something new.” Follow that metaphor through and Prince’s “something new” can only be faecal.

But here is Greenman criticising the fall-from-grace album Graffiti Bridge. “The only thing holding back these epics from unconditional greatness is their poor aerodynamics,” he writes. “They’re like ­giant whiteboards filled with flow charts and equations: diagrams of how to make a Prince song work at top speed without actually working at top speed.” That simile, of subsonic flying whiteboards, is ridiculous but accurate – and captures something of what Prince is like when he is his diagrammatic rather than his funky self.

There are great insights here. Some are offhand, such as, “What is Purple Rain, the movie, but an argument for collaboration?” Others are more laboured but worthwhile as mini-obituaries: “Prince was a flamboyant star with a penchant for intellectual ­exploration, but he was also a sly comedian, a critic of existing soul music stereotypes, and a massive egomaniac.”

Elsewhere, the prose is pretentious, bathetic and nonsensical in equal measure. Of Prince’s alter ego Camille, ­Greenman writes, “This pitch-shifted version of Prince hovered between male and female and, in the process, cracked open previously conventional issues of power, sexuality, ego and
id.” Clearly, Prince/Camille had no issue with the superego – or, at least, didn’t feel the need to hover and in the process crack it.

By the end, I felt that this book was a fitting monument to Prince: glib and unsatisfying. When I listen to his music, I feel that something is being taken from me rather than given. At best, I end a song such as “Kiss” feeling disburdened, floating, freer; at worst, I feel hungry, swizzed, abused. And I think this is deliberate. Prince aimed to make his listeners want to have him or be him. He did not like them to consider themselves his equals. Making them feel inadequate was the whole point.

There is a clip of him performing Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People” with three members of the band. Each time the chorus comes up and everyone in the room sings, “I-i am everyday people,” you can see Prince struggling to join in, because he’s thinking, “You may be, but I’m not.”

I don’t doubt that the latter-day Prince could be a magnificent performer. The fewer musicians he had with him, the better he got. Fans left his concerts feeling that they’d been at the greatest gig in their life, but Prince was the inventor of the after-show after-show. For super-fans, there was always another gig at a smaller, more obscure venue, starting at three or five o’clock in the morning. Just when it looked like he could give no more, it turned out – wearyingly – that he was inexhaustible. There was always more of the same. More 15-minute funk jams. More cheeky covers intended to prove that Prince was a more talented musician than the songs’ composers, because he could insert a half-diminished seventh chord where they’d strummed E minor. Worst of all, there were more and more muso excursions into 1970s fusion. It’s a fundamental question: if Prince was such a great musician, why did he play such God-awful jazz?

In the end, as a fan who had adored every­thing he did up to Lovesexy, I became angry with him and stopped listening. So did Greenman: “When I started working on this book, I promised myself that I would listen only to Prince’s music. I had enough to last me months. But about six weeks in, the Prince-only diet started to feel claustrophobic and maybe even a little ghoulish . . .” What Greenman found, I think, is that in Prince’s musical world the space gets perpetually smaller, because ultimately all the singer wants you to concentrate on is his self-aggrandisement. It’s fitting that Prince kept his unreleased recordings in “the vault” – a place for miserly hoarding of surplus value.

The ghoulishness of the Prince diet is that it gives no proper nourishment. It’s there in the lyrics to one of his offhand masterpieces: “Starfish and coffee/Maple syrup and jam/Butterscotch clouds, a tangerine/And a side order of ham”. This isn’t soul food. You’ll be hungry an hour later.

Greenman’s most revealing footnote – about himself and about his subject – concerns another creepy, slave-driving manufacturer of confectionery. “The movie side of Warner Bros had [in the early 1990s] just acquired the rights to remake Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory . . . Prince, I thought, would be perfect for the part . . . I wrote a long letter to Warner making the case but was too shy to send it.”

In this book, that long letter is finally delivered. Prince was a perfect Wonka. 

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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