By Darren Johnson
I’ve never accepted the all-around hatred for Courtney Love. Nirvana fans scorn her for allegedly corrupting Kurt Cobain. Conspiracy theorists even say she hired a hitman to murder him. Some people just don’t like her bold persona. It’s tall and loud and full of thigh bruises.
But one of my favorite movies is the underappreciated 1999 Andy Kaufman biopic “Man on the Moon,” where also underappreciated Jim Carrey plays the late comic and Love plays his girlfriend, Lynne Marguiles. Carrey, at the peak of his abilities, does an amazing job as Kaufman, for sure, but Love also conveys a glowing, genuine excitement in that movie that portends a deeper artist.
Then, let’s admit that while Nirvana is great, their legacy does benefit by Cobain’s sad entrance into the 27 Club, and they really only have two all-time great albums “Nevermind” and “In Utero.” Love’s band, Hole, has two great albums, as well, “Live Through This,” which is hard-edged and energetically persistent, and “Celebrity Skin,” more polished and subdued but still with a commanding female voice and lyrics. In fact, Love was railing against the hypocrisy of sexually-harassing men in entertainment from the very beginning. Over the years, I have given both Nirvana and Hole a lot of listening time, and usually prefer the latter. But Nirvana albums continue to sell and get played on the radio while Hole has never cracked the Billboard Top 40. Love at this point makes most of her money from her husband’s estate. Cobain’s universal adoration and Love’s scorn may be a double standard.
In the paranoid 2015 documentary “Soaked in Bleach,” star Tom Grant, the ham-and-egger private investigator Love hired to check on Cobain when he became incommunicado, says that the Nirvana estate is the motive for Love arranging for the alleged killing of Cobain. He believes he was hired as a stooge. She’d found him via the phone book. This documentary falls into the trap of “conspiracy theory” reporting, as so many documentaries on Netflix do. Lots of unreliable witnesses and fake science – for example, suggesting that Cobain had ingested too much heroin the night of his suicide to have had the physical strength to pull the trigger on his shotgun.
However, at the time of Cobain’s death, it was not clear what this estate would become. There were comparable bands of that era. Maybe, without the suicide, they would have faded into predictability like Pearl Jam. And maybe Hole was a casualty of this death, as well.
The 1998 documentary “Kurt and Courtney,” now on Starz and Amazon Instant, is much better – though certainly Love is not happy with this one. At least filmmaker Nick Bloomfield doesn’t buy into the conspiracy theories, though he addresses them. Love is portrayed as a very controlling, irate woman, but we learn to understand why, when we meet her moon-unit father, who tormented her with pitbulls as a kid and now makes money writing books about Cobain, including buying into the conspiracy theories. We get to meet their former drugged-adled friends. And we find some of the people Love had stepped on on the way up, including a former boyfriend, Rozz Rezabek, a Portland musician Love first dated and who she tried to brand into a Cobain until it broke him, apparently.
Then Love and Cobain met in Seattle as the grunge scene was just starting out; two opposite personalities, for sure. In the doc, we meet the nanny, who took care of their child, Frances, and who had few kind words for Love. The nanny says Love was always asking him about his will. We meet Cobain’s first and only other significant girlfriend, whose messy house is a shrine to him (Cobain’s art hangs on her walls; it’s excellent and probably worth a fortune). Most notably, we meet his aunt, who sheds light on Cobain’s own lousy childhood, and plays some of his early recordings. She says he was always suicidal, so does not buy in to the conspiracies. His suicide note was written to his childhood imaginary friend, Boddah.
So, can one come away from this film still liking Love? Sure. We’re all products of our environments to a degree, no? If one sees her moreso as a wife who also had her own problems, and not as a calculating killer – which I also don’t believe – one can give her a pass on what happened.
Then, almost by accident, I caught the 1986 film “Sid and Nancy” on Epix (it’s also on Spectrum on Demand). It’s about the Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious and his girlfriend, who had a heroin-fueled relationship that ended with him stabbing her to death, and then his suicide.
Now, the Sex Pistols, who only had one real album, are one of the most overrated bands of all time. They had a cool name and band members took on personas like Vicious and Johnny Rotten, which has helped their legacy. Vicious (played ably in “Sid and Nancy” by Gary Oldman) was a very minor member of this short-lived band, playing bass for a stint. Whether this topic deserved a whole movie is debatable, but the character of Nancy Spungen (Chloe Webb) was interesting – though played a bit over the top and not as alluringly as archival photos of Spungen suggest. While watching the film, I imagined that Courtney Love would have been perfect for the Nancy role – and then Love appeared as a minor character in the movie.
Odd, considering how her relationship with Cobain mirrored “Sid and Nancy’s,” to a degree, and this movie came out well before Nirvana and before she even knew Cobain.
Watching and listening to all of these works shows us Love has a sense of destiny, however tragic.
Earlier this year on Lifetime, Love made a comeback of sorts – and was quickly offed, playing Mary Menendez, the sick mom in “Menendez: Blood Brothers.”
She also makes an appearance in the interesting new documentary on Netflix about Carrey and his role in “Man on the Moon,” titled “Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond.”
Darren Johnson is a former New York Press Association Writer of the Year and has written “It’s New to You!” for the past eight years. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.