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The Indestructible Courtney Love

Like Annie Hall, HBO’s new Cobain film, Montage of Heck, shows us that pain is a valuable—and beautiful—lesson

Rachel Shukert
May 12, 2015
Courtney Love performs in Los Angeles, California, April 7, 2015. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
Courtney Love performs in Los Angeles, California, April 7, 2015. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

If you’re familiar with any of my previous work, you’ll know that I love Courtney Love. My attachment to her, which formed early in adolescence, is virtually indestructible.

My ardor for Love is based on her essential indestructibility. And if Courtney Love could live through this than I certainly could live through Junior High without making any apologies to anyone for my ambivalence, sadness, or rage.

Some of you, however, may not feel quite the same way. Love’s history of onstage meltdowns, her public displays of inebriation, and her oddly punctuated Twitter feed might have led you to assume that Courtney is, to put it charitably, not completely in control of herself. So it’s understandable if, while watching Montage of Heck, HBO’s buzzy new documentary about the life of Kurt Cobain (which features many of the rock legend’s never before seen diaries, artwork, and home movies, and was co-produced by his daughter, the heretofore mysterious Frances Bean), you were struck by how together she seemed.

In Montage of Heck, Love—with a halo of smoke from her ever-present cigarette curling over her platinum hair—is forthright, introspective, erudite and verbose. She doesn’t shy away from discussing her and Cobain’s heroin addictions. She owns her mistakes. She lucidly interrogates the unique dynamics of their relationship, such as their personal and sexual chemistry, the intense sensitivity that made Kurt both an incredible artist and a deeply troubled man. It’s Love’s performance–combined with archival footage that shows a couple who are deeply in love, if not exactly, um, super duper stable–which has made many sit up and take notice.

Love tells jokes, she muses on the nature of relationships. It’s an all new and highly therapized Courtney who allegedly owes her shrink $48,000, which he is now suing her for. This all sounds like the kind of joke you’d hear in a set by a certain bespectacled Jewish comedian, which has brought me to this conclusion: Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love were the Woody Allen and Diane Keaton of the grunge generation. And Montage of Heck is our Annie—or rather, our “Anti”—Hall.

Think about it. In both films, the anchoring feature is a singular and instantly recognizable icon addressing the camera directly, talking about their most significant romantic relationship and how it went wrong, followed by a series of clips and vignettes of that relationship.

But the aesthetics are different. In Hall, we get tweed jackets and Ralph Lauren garconne chic, but in Heck we see scruffy cardigans and ratty vintage dresses. Instead of Upper West Side psychoanalysis, it’s heroin; instead of ponderous Jung-inflected musings on the nature of mortality—actual suicide.

Still, both couples encapsulate the idea of a particular place and time, a specific artistic vision and intellectualism. And both films put a love affair in front of us, which challenges the viewer to judge for themselves: Was it real love? Did they belong together? Should it have worked out?

Obviously, the Cobain/Love affair ended far more tragically than the drifting apart to separate coasts and separate lives of Annie Hall (see: suicide). And Courtney Love, with her psychological complexity and unwillingness to adjust any part of herself or her worldview for the comfort of others, is much more Alvy than daffy, eager-to-please Annie.

And yet both films have the same essential lesson: far more important than the fact that things end is that they happened at all. The pain is worth the art that is its ultimate result. It’s all worth it.

It’s the kind of message that speaks to young and old alike. And there’s nothing that speaks to the angsty adolescent that’s still inside of me than a vision of the grown-up Courtney—one new nose, two new lips, and 48 grand in outstanding medical debt later—sitting on a couch and telling us that honestly—we need the eggs.

Rachel Shukert is the author of the memoirs Have You No Shame? and Everything Is Going To Be Great,and the novel Starstruck. She is the creator of the Netflix show The Baby-Sitters Club, and a writer on such series as GLOW and Supergirl. Her Twitter feed is @rachelshukert.