Kurt and Courtney: Love Will Tear It Apart

“I’M INTERESTED IN forbidden stories,” says Nick Broomfield of his latest project, Kurt And Courtney, his drawling English vowels tanned with West Coast inflexions from years based in LA.

For those who love Nick Broomfield, his voice is a staple factor in the cult following he’s garnered with documentaries about Heidi Fleiss, Eugene Terreblanche and Margaret Thatcher. For those who dislike Broomfield, it’s the voice of a self-aggrandising creep who gives more conventional documentary-makers a bad-name. To those who misunderstand Nick Broomfield – and very often, this seems to include his willingly duped interviewees – it’s the voice of a Tim Nice-But-Dim, barely out of film school and blundering beyond his depth. Whatever, Nick Broomfield is a man who has made it his business to insinuate himself into intimate and bizarre places other film-makers cannot reach.

“There have been other pieces and films made about Courtney Love that have simply never come out because of pressure from her PR people,” says Broomfield, weighing every word with care as is his wont when on the other end of the tape machine. “It nearly happened to this one. So there’s a lot of internal censorship, for example, on the part of companies like MTV who depend on being able to show Nirvana videos.”

Kurt And Courtney has pissed off Courtney Love, who’s brought to bear all her formidable, litigious might in an effort to have the film suppressed. She succeeded in having it banned from the US Sundance Film Festival, and her people have tried actively to discourage alternative US radio stations – such as Seattle’s KNDD-FM – from having anything to do with promoting the film if they ever want to deal with Courtney again. It’s also pissed off American critics, many of whom are evidently unfamiliar with Nick Broomfield’s previous work.

They find his tendency to interview people before they’ve had a chance to prepare themselves for camera – his desire to convey as much about the experience of making a film as the subject of the film itself (with Broomfield’s head and boom-mic constantly poking into the action) – an unforgiveably stylised, lopsided and facetious desecration of grunge’s greatest icons.

Others doubt his integrity. Though he claims always to have been a fan of Nirvana, Jacques Peretti – the Guardian journalist who was initially supposed to have collaborated on this project – retorts indignantly that Broomfield had never even heard of Kurt Cobain until this film was mooted.

ALL OF THIS misses the point. Broomfield’s method of film-making is highly disingenuous. As with all of his films, he sets out with the earnest and declared pretext of uncovering some Ultimate Truth (his most oft-repeated phrase is “I wanted to find out more…”). Here, the supposed Ultimate Truth is how Kurt Cobain really met his death – was he murdered and was Courtney responsible?

The murder theory peters out on a technicality as far as Broomfield is concerned. He refutes detective-turned-conspiracy theorist Tom Grant’s assertion that the heroin in Kurt’s body would have made it impossible for him to have picked up the rifle and shot himself on the strength of a counter-argument from a London specialist in drug addiction, Dr Colin Brewer.

Grant, I remind Broomfield, has retorted via The Internet that Brewer’s argument was based on an intake of morphine, to which Broomfield replies: “Well, I don’t know…for him, you suspect, the murder conspiracy is now an irrelevancy.”

What really unfurls here is typically Broomfield-esque – a whole topography of bizarros, saddoes and minor characters whose lives are warped by major happenings and major characters. Kurt And Courtney concludes on an image of a hollow-eyed, out-of-focus Cobain from an old snapshot, and that’s as sharp a definition as is achieved here of the central enigma. Yet his depiction of the whole Seattle/Portland scene, with its grey skies, white trash and hopelessly addicted, dysfunctional air, seems to tell a deeper truth. I laughed like a drain throughout.

“Yeah, that’s how I felt when I was doing it,” says Broomfield. “I think the whole North West scene is quite depressing. Although Seattle and Portland are very beautiful cities, it rains all the time. When I was up there, it rained for three weeks on end – you felt like a fish. But although it’s quite depressing and there’s this blanket of heroin hanging over everything – nearly everyone we were dealing with was on heroin – a lot of what happens is very funny. Still, I don’t want to look like I’m laughing at these people. Which is something that happens when you push your reactions.”

Rather than indulge in Ruby Wax-style gurning asides to camera, Nick greets freaks like “El Duce” – the S&M LA rock star to whose out-of-town shack he is led, improbably, by Divine Brown’s pimp.

“Courtney offered me $50,000 to whack Kurt Cobain,” growls the bear-like Duce.

“Is that a fact?” replies Broomfield, his excessive respectfulness betraying his utter certainty that it is nothing of the kind – especially when El Duce adds: “Gimme a beer and maybe I’ll talk some more.”

Furthermore, by dint of polite persistence, Broomfield teases from Courtney Love’s biological father, Hank Harrison, a rabid rant that shows, his “tough love” for his daughter for what it is. Broomfield has heard he used to “discipline” Courtney with Rottweilers.

“No,” he corrects him, “Pitbulls,” before pathetically attempting to reassert his parental authority against the errant Courtney like a trailer-park King Lear. “I’ll kick your ass! I’ll kick your ass!”

Broomfield also talked to Kurt’s aunt. What about his parents? Why didn’t you talk to them?

“I spoke to his mother, Wendy, on the phone and she said she’d have to talk to Courtney. Courtney’s bought her a house and they’re very close…Kurt’s aunt and Wendy don’t talk any more. The aunt had a feeling that Courtney was rather like his mother and in a way he’d married his mum. I also spoke to Kurt’s father, who didn’t want to be interviewed and hasn’t done any interviews.”

Did you find anyone sympathetic to Courtney among the people you interviewed?
“Not really. I mean, the one person who was sympathetic was her drug dealer from Portland. And he was completely nodding out when I was interviewing him, with his girlfriend asleep on his shoulder. And he was very admiring of the fact that she’d crawled out of the gutter, but he was the worst possible recommendation for it. But he was literally the only positive testimony that I got – and it’s not that I didn’t try. I contacted people like Rosemary Carroll, her lawyer, and couldn’t get them to talk on film.”

Nonetheless, the case against Courtney seems to flake away completely, as key “witnesses” fail to deliver the goods – like former acquaintance Amy, who never turns up with the photos she supposedly possesses of Kurt and Courtney doing drugs, or the wretched Dylan Carson who, having apparently not looked in the mirror lately, can see no reason why Kurt, or anybody, for that matter, should want to get off drugs. “It’s not like he was poverty-stricken…”

“Because of the drugs, some of these people have trouble separating fantasy from reality,” sighs Broomfield. “And, with Amy, you just never knew how much was based on anything. But the world’s like that. So, in a way, those characters are very relevant.”

FAR FROM WANTING to rubbish Courtney, insists Broomfield, had she co-operated – as did Heidi Fleiss before her – she might well have emerged a more sympathetic character.

“She could have opened up and come across as someone likeable and charismatic and helped reveal how all these people had a vested interest in doing her in through envy or whatever.”

In other words, you wanted to establish a relationship with Courtney?
“Exactly. And it would then reverberate back down the film as she gives her own explanation of things. But that didn’t happen. She appeared to be as ghastly as everyone said she was.”

Broomfield was rumoured to have had a fling with Heidi Fleiss while filming the documentary with her. No chance of that happening here. After her rave reviews for The People Vs Larry Flynt, Courtney had decided she was a movie star and had taken to flouncing about Hollywood in the grand manner. The film includes a clip from America’s Today programme in which she refuses to discuss drugs because “This is not the demographic I’m going to talk about that in front of.”

Broomfield represented still less that demographic. She refused to play ball. Her people forbade Broomfield from using Nirvana’s music in Kurt And Courtney, and applied pressure to ensure that financial backing for the documentary from MTV was withdrawn – Broomfield, characteristically, incorporates the relevant phone calls into the film.

“I felt, right, I’m not going to put up with this shit, this is a story that’s out there. I’m just a member of the press and that’s fair enough.”

It’s then that, in a fit of righteous pique, the film turns on Courtney. Her litany of threats and actual assaults against journalists is related, before the denouement when Broomfield is forced to switch persona from ironically inept teaser to scourge of the censorious celebrity. Courtney is keynote speaker at a glitzy black-tie bash for the ACLU, an organisation set up to defend civil liberties, Broomfield hi-jacks the podium to query the appropriateness of Courtney speaking at such an event when she herself is an avowedly vicious control freak when it comes to investigations regarding herself. He is bundled offstage. It’s a triumphant moment for the documentary-maker.

“Yeah, the guy who chucks me off the stage is Danny Goldberg who’s now president of Mercury Records, who’s essentially Courtney’s business manager. Now, on the one hand he’s President of ACLU, on the other hand he’s this other sort of character. I wonder if the two roles are reconcilable?”

The incident highlights a hypocrisy, certainly – Hollywood and the rock establishment are often vying to associate themselves with high-profile, fashionably liberal causes while surrounding themselves with an increasingly illiberal Praetorian guard of PR and marketing people. But it’s a general hypocrisy, and I wonder if Courtney’s crime is that she plays the game a tad crudely at times. She’s been called “the most ruthless manipulator of the media today”, but that doesn’t necessarily make her the most effective. We see her schmooze and preen outside an Oscars ceremony, but she does so in a helplessly contrived way that suggests she’ll never live up to the role she’s trying to fill. Her ambitions in Hollywood seem set to come to naught – movie-wise, she’s a one-trick pony – and then where will she be? Clearly a woman motivated by insecurity and desperation, with a chequered past and an uncertain future, can Broomfield still be angry with Courtney? He described her as the “worst person he had ever had to deal with” at one point – and, given that in the past he’s dealt with a serial killer, a jailed neo-Nazi and Margaret Thatcher, that’s saying something.

IT DOES SEEM the pique has died down a little, The lawyers have backed off.

“I think they realised that they were promoting the film by trying to ban it. And right now, no, I don’t have any particular personal feelings about Courtney at all.”

Even so, one last swipe.

“What was interesting is when Kurt had disappeared and she’d hired Tom Grant to find him. Her album, Live Through This, was about to come out and they had a log of the phone calls that she made at the hotel she was staying at around then. And about half of the calls were to K-Rock, requesting her own songs. In the midst of all that was going on, she was obviously trying to promote her album.”

It’s been suggested that Courtney was aware that by coming down hard on the movie she knew only too well the counter-productive furore it would create – all helpful in promoting her upcoming, long-awaited follow-up to Live Through This. She’s a survivor. Nick Broomfield, meanwhile, feels he’s spent “too long” involved with this movie and is anxious to take a break before trying his hand at a feature, perhaps a comedy.

“After all,” he says, “I think my films are quite funny.”
What’s more, he’s landed a multi-million pound deal with Channel 4 for four more documentaries. But isn’t he going to run into increasing obstacles as more people get wise to who he is?

“Ye-es…that could be a problem, I think. Unless I go somewhere very far away. Which could be nice…”

Nick Broomfield is destined for the sunshine, leaving behind the cold of Seattle and the frozen memory of Kurt Cobain…

© David StubbsUncut, July 1998

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