Following in the deeply idiosyncratic footsteps of Last Days, About a Son plays more like autobiography than documentary. Gus Van Sant’s feature extrapolates moments from the life of Kurt Cobain (with Michael Pitt as a musician named Blake), while A.J. Schnack’s non-fiction film adheres closer to the facts, but advances a more radical Koyaanisqatsi-like approach.
First off, Cobain supplies the narration, but the filmmaker avoids pictures of the alternative icon until the end. (He culled the voice-over from interviews conducted by author Michael Azerrad for Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana.) Beyond-the-grave narration isn’t a new concept-see Tupac: Resurrection-but Schnack (Gigantic: A Tale of Two Johns) ups the ante by excluding talking heads, concert footage, and other staples of the genre.
Instead, he uses still and time-lapse photography to explore Cobain’s Northwest, i.e. Aberdeen, Olympia, and Seattle. The artist’s unguarded reflections create a sense of intimacy as specific locations illustrate his words. Conversely, the lack of portraiture and self-penned music generates a feeling of absence. The soundtrack combines an ambient score from producer Steve Fisk and Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard with Cobain favorites, like David Bowie, Cheap Trick, and the Vaselines (available on a separate CD).
For more specifics, interested parties can always turn to tomes by Azerrad, Gina Arnold, Charles R. Cross, and Everett True. About a Son doesn’t presume to provide a definitive portrait, but Schnack’s rigorous avoidance of convention results in an experience far more dream-like than depressing.