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About a Son 

A new documentary on Kurt Cobain takes some sonic risks.

Ladies and gentlemen . . . Nirvana.
  • Ladies and gentlemen . . . Nirvana.
In the new Kurt Cobain documentary About a Son, Nirvana's music is noticeably absent. Instead, director AJ Schnack employs a murky-sounding score composed by Death Cab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard and Steve Fisk (Pell Mell, Pigeonhed).

But the director also uses the music that shaped Cobain's career and personality -- his life story, told via mixtape. His choices for the soundtrack, released on September 11 by Barsuk Records, are sometimes surprising: Queen and Creedence, for example. However, many of Cobain's idols and favorites are indeed represented: the Vaselines, Mudhoney, R.E.M., and David Bowie.

We recently talked with Schnack about his About a Son, which is currently snaking its way through the nation's film-festival circuit.

How did you get the rights to music by so many big names: Bowie, Iggy, R.E.M.?
We just asked, really. My intention all along was to use music by the bands that Kurt was influenced by -- in part because Kurt makes that approach kind of easy, because he was so well known for talking about his influences and championing bands that he was interested in. And also because one of the things that made Kurt great as an artist was, he really took his influences and threw different genres of music into this blender in his head, and made something that was in some ways a combination of a lot of different things. That was one of the things that made Nirvana so interesting.

I would never have thought of CCR as an influence.
When I learned that Kurt played in a Creedence cover band . . . I just thought that was great. I really hoped they would be down with letting us use a song. And they were.

You didn't use your subject's music. Did that pose any challenges for you?
It would certainly be hard [only] if the intention from the start was to use a lot of different sources of Kurt in interviews, a lot of different sources of Kurt video. It would be weird if you were seeing him playing, but you weren't playing any Nirvana music. The whole idea that you weren't really going to see Kurt until the end of the film, and you were only going to use [photographer] Charles Peterson's photographs . . . that was a question of whether or not you could put a Nirvana song in at the very end of the film, which is something I had planned to do and that we had talked about doing. When we actually got to that point of the editing process, it just didn't fit, really. We came to realize more and more it wasn't a film about Nirvana; it was a film about an ordinary guy who had some amazing talent, but who was surrounded by these demons. It was much more about a journey through life and, in some ways, a study of depression. It didn't make sense to end with a Nirvana song.

Was it difficult to figure out what song went where and in what part of the movie?
It was definitely a puzzle because there are several aspects to this. One is that I had a stack of CDs of Kurt's influences, which was really fun. You could hear all these different kinds of music. I would go through and say, "Okay, I wanted to make sure that each of these parts of his life are represented" -- the arena-rock stuff he was listening to in Aberdeen, the new-wave stuff. I wanted to make sure the stuff in Olympia [was included]. A lot of it was import and female-driven. And, of course, the early punk rock.

It's like you're making a mixtape for someone you have a crush on. It's like, "I need to put this one here. There's meaning to this."
You discover things too. I don't know how many times I listened to [Queen's] News of the World and had never thought of "It's Late" as being one of the great songs on this record. When I listened to it in terms of trying to figure out what I wanted to put in the movie, and I came across "It's Late" for a moment when he's talking about his estrangement from his father. Even though that's a song about romantic love, it fit so well. And now that's so obvious to me that it's one of the greatest Queen songs ever.

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