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About a Song

Local director AJ Schnack traces Kurt Cobain's musical influences in his poignant documentary.

In the new Kurt Cobain documentary About a Son, the trio's music is noticeably absent. Instead, director (and Edwardsville High School graduate) AJ Schnack lets Cobain tell his own life story, by splicing raspy narration taken from phone interviews between the musician and author Michael Azerrad, with artful, rich scenes of people and places from the towns in which Cobain lived. This sense of eerie disconnect and beyond-the-grave atmosphere is reinforced by a desolate, floating-in-murky-water score composed by Death Cab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard and noted musician Steve Fisk (Pell Mell, Pigeonhed).

Perhaps more important to the emotional landscape of the movie, however, is Son's use of the music that shaped Cobain's career and personality — his life as told through a figurative mixtape. (Turned literal: The About a Son soundtrack was released on September 11 by Barsuk Records.) The choices Schnack uses in the movie are sometimes surprising (Queen and Creedence Clearwater Revival, for example), although a few noted Cobain favorites (the Vaselines, Mudhoney) and idols (R.E.M., David Bowie) appear. The cumulative effect is even more poignant, because Nirvana's iconic visages aren't even shown until the very end of the film — when audiences are finally faced with Cobain's 1994 suicide.

Annie Zaleski: What struck me at first were the big names on the soundtrack — Bowie, Iggy and R.E.M. How did you get the rights to the music?

AJ Schnack: 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, his writing so interesting.

Then the question is: "Will any of these people let us use their music?" [Laughs] And actually, the three that you mentioned — Bowie, Iggy and R.E.M. — all said yes in a day. That made the rest of it much easier. When they came on, it gave a lot of credibility to the whole project and to our ability to get other people to come on.

Creedence Clearwater Revival really surprised me, as I would never have thought of them as an influence. But when seeing it in the movie, it actually makes total sense: Nirvana did have their folkier, storytelling moments. It was interesting seeing the bits and pieces of the artists that Kurt liked coming out in Nirvana's music.

I love that too. I mean, being from St. Louis, the Creedence and stuff...I grew up with such a Southern-rock-style influence playing all the time on KSHE and other radio stations. When I learned that Kurt played in a Creedence cover band — I mean, I don't think I went to a wedding in the '70s or '80s where the band didn't play four or five Creedence songs — I just thought that was great. I really hoped they would be down with letting us use a song. And they were.

As a filmmaker, using music as a way to tell your story — that wasn't music of the subject — did it pose any specific challenges for you?

Well, not necessarily, because the approach of the entire film was so different. It would certainly be hard 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 in 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.

I thought it was more powerful to all of a sudden see these pictures of them at the end. It made everything much more real. Everyone knows Nirvana at this point; everyone knows those songs. What would it really add?

I really want people to go home and listen to Nirvana. I do think hearing all of these different bands that were important to Kurt, I think you'll start hearing other things in his music. I tried to cut those photographs at the end to a Nirvana song. And it just didn't work at all. It felt like it was a triumphant moment or something — which didn't really track where you are emotionally at that point in the film, where you're really requiring a quiet moment.

Did you ever see them live?

I never saw them live. I had two chances, and both times I blew it off to go see other bands, which I can't even remember the names of now. [Laughs] [I figured] I'd have many, many opportunities to see Nirvana again, but I may never get a chance to see this unnamed band that's playing their first American show from Scotland or something.

It's a good thing you don't remember, because it would be embarrassing if it was someone who was really terrible.

I'm sure it was any random indie band that for a brief moment was the new Bettie Serveert or something.

Once you had the songs in place, was it difficult to figure out what song went where and in what part of the movie?

Difficult's not really the right word. It was definitely a puzzle, because there are several aspects to this. One is that 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, "OK, I wanted to make sure that each of these parts of his life are representing" — 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. You have ideas of certain things you wanted to use, of certain bands you definitely wanted to get in there. Even if you wanted to use somebody's, it would have to fit emotionally with the moment. There are bands I love that I know were important to Kurt, that I couldn't find the right place for.

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'smeaning 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. [Laughs] You rediscover things that were right in front of your nose all along.

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