The film includes artwork by Cobain as well as music and sound collages composed by him. Much of music and sound collages were released on the film's soundtrack, Montage of Heck: The Home Recordings. A companion book was also released containing animation stills from the film as well as transcripts of interviews, photographs, and Cobain's artwork that were not featured in the film.
After Kurt Cobain is born in 1967, his parents move to Aberdeen, Washington and shortly after his sister Kim is born. Kurt lives a normal childhood, although his father Don would pick on him. At the age of nine, his parents are divorced. He lives with Don for a while until Don marries Jenny Westeby and they have kids together. He moves back in with his mom and as a teenager he becomes unruly and starts smoking pot with friends. He and his friends start to visit the home of a developmentally challenged high school classmate to steal her father's alcohol. It becomes a hard time for Cobain, who considers suicide for the first time. After he attempts to have sex with the girl, his classmates begin insulting and shaming him. Cobain, unable to take the ridicule, lays down on train tracks with the intention of ending his life, but the train travels on a different railway.
After becoming homeless and living with friends, he eventually gets his own place at 17 and starts a band with Krist Novoselic. Chad Channing eventually joins the band on drums and they choose the band name "Nirvana". Nirvana's first "shows" consists of playing for a few friends and random passersby at local house parties. They eventually start playing at clubs and radio stations and Kurt starts dating Tracy Marander. The band signs onto Sub Pop record company and they release their first album "Bleach". The band starts to have interviews and doing tours. After a short while, Kurt breaks up with Tracy. Chad leaves the band, Nirvana leaves the label to sign onto DGC Records and Dave Grohl becomes the new drummer.
After recording their next album Nevermind their song "Smells Like Teen Spirit" becomes a hit and the band is launched into the mainstream. Kurt meets Courtney Love and they start dating. In 1992, they get married after they find out she is pregnant, but at the same time Kurt gets into heroin. In an interview with Vanity Fair, Courtney mentions Kurt's heroin habit and that Courtney tried it as well, Lynn Hirschberg the journalist for the magazine writes that Courtney used the drug while pregnant, misquoting her. Shortly after Frances is born but they are confronted by The Los Angeles County Department of Children's Services who take the Cobains to court, claiming that the couple's drug usage makes them unfit parents. Due to the claims made in the Vanity Fair article, Seattle child-welfare agents remove the couple's baby daughter for around four weeks. The couple eventually obtain custody in an exchange for agreeing to provide urine tests and receive regular visits from a social worker. After months of legal negotiations, the couple are eventually granted full custody of their daughter.
Kurt's heroin use continues as the band records their new album In Utero in 1993. Pat Smear joins the band and they start doing arena tours. and Cobain starts to turn pale while suffering withdrawal. Not long after returning home, Cobain's heroin use resumes. The band goes on to do an MTV Unplugged performance and they continue touring again in early 1994. After being diagnosed with bronchitis and severe laryngitis. He flies to Rome the next day for medical treatment, and is joined there by Courtney, on March 3, 1994. The next morning, Love awakes to find that Cobain has overdosed on a combination of champagne and Rohypnol. Cobain is immediately rushed to the hospital, and spends the rest of the day unconscious. After five days in the hospital, Cobain is released and returns to Seattle.
The screen cuts to black and a text appears stating "One month after returning from Rome, Kurt Cobain took his own life. He was 27 years old." before the credits start to play.
The documentary is directed by Brett Morgen who began work on it in 2007 when Cobain's widow, Courtney Love, approached him with the idea. It is the first documentary about Kurt Cobain to be made with the cooperation of his family. Morgen and his team were given access to the entirety of Cobain's personal and family archives. The documentary includes footage from various Nirvana performances and unheard songs, as well as unreleased home movies, recordings, artwork, photography, journals, demos, and songbooks. Morgen used the interviews in the film Lenny as a model for the interviews in the film. The film's title, Montage of Heck, takes its name from a musical collage that was created by Cobain with a 4-track cassette recorder in about 1988, of which there are two versions; one is about thirty-six minutes long and the other about eight minutes long. Several of the film's scenes were animated by Stefan Nadelman and Hisko Hulsing. Jeff Danna wrote an original score for the film. The film was co-produced by HBO Documentary Films and Universal Pictures International Entertainment Content Group. Cobain and Courtney Love's only daughter, Frances Bean Cobain, was a co-executive producer on the film.
Ahead of screenings of the film on both HBO and international cinema releases, director Brett Morgen stated in an interview online that an album will be released in the months following the film's release that will include home recordings. Morgen said the album "will feel like you're kind of hanging out with Kurt Cobain on a hot summer day in Olympia, Washington as he fiddles about" but that "it's not a Nirvana album." The album will feature at least one unreleased track. Morgen stated that the album will be 85 minutes long. Morgen also replied to a tweet question and answer, in which he said the soundtrack would include "Opinion demo was almost 11 minutes long. And that there were going to be two versions of "Sappy" on the ST... an instrumental & a slowed down take." Per Deadline, Morgen confirmed that the soundtrack is going to be released the same day as the MoH DVD “It will come out November 6th, the same day as the DVD release.”
The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on January 24, 2015 and was subsequently shown at the 65th Berlin International Film Festival on February 8, 2015. The film received a limited theatrical release in the United Kingdom on April 10, 2015. In the United States, Universal Studios distributed the film for a limited theatrical release on April 24, 2015, where it was shown in just three theaters: the Cinerama Dome at Arclight Hollywood, the SIFF Cinema Egyptian Theatre in Seattle, and the IFC Center in New York City. The film premiered on television in the United States on HBO on May 4, 2015, and was released on DVD and Blu-ray and a Super Deluxe Edition Box Set in North America on November 13, 2015.
The film grossed $107,055 during the first two days of its limited theatrical release in the United States. In the United Kingdom, where it was released on home video on April 27, 2015, the film topped the Official Charts Company's UK Music Video Chart Top 50 for the week of May 3–9, 2015 and peaked at number six on the UK Blu-ray Chart Top 100, number 13 on the UK DVD Chart Top 100, and 11 on the UK Video Chart Top 100.
The film was met with an overwhelming positive response from critics, many of whom noted that the humanized portrayal of Cobain distinguished the film from prior works on the same subject. On review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, the film has a 98% approval rating, based on 54 reviews, with an average rating of 8.2/10. At Metacritic, they assign a weighted average rating out of 100 to selected independent ratings and reviews from mainstream critics, and the film has received a Metascore of 84, based on 19 reviews, indicating "universal acclaim."
David Fear of Rolling Stone described the film as "the unfiltered Kurt experience," noting that Cobain is shown "not [as] a spokesman for a generation," but as "a human being, and a husband, and a father." Boyd van Hoeij of The Hollywood Reporter concluded that the film is "impressive in parts, but wildly uneven as a whole." Consequence of Sound's Justin Gerber gave the film an "A" grade, writing that the film is "what can only be defined as the definitive Cobain documentary." Katie Walsh of Indiewire described it as "a true achievement, both in documentary filmmaking, and in preserving the memory and legacy of Cobain." Audrey Adler of NME wrote that the film is "the most holistic portrait of a rock icon ever created" and gave it a score of 9/10. Chris Nashawaty of Entertainment Weekly wrote that the film is "a portrait that's at turns confessional, confused, and yes, even at times happy, that bring bring [sic] Cobain ... to life in a way that no other film or book has." Dennis Harvey of Variety wrote that the film is "absorbing stuff, amply conveying the magnetism of a conflicted leader who drew fanatical adoration, yet who one suspects wasn't easy company."
The film was nominated for "Best Animated Special Production" at the 43rd Annie Awards.
Buzz Osborne, close friend of Cobain, called the film "mostly misguided fiction" and wrote that "people need to understand that 90% of Montage of Heck is bullshit". In an interview with RiffYou.com, Osborne reinforced his criticisms, stating "I happen to know a lot of the stuff [shared in the movie] isn’t true. If people want to believe it and think he was capable of doing all those things, that’s their problem. But, I am not going along with it".
Along with the film, a companion book of the same name was released. It is co-authored by Richard Bienstock and Morgen, who contributed a foreword. The book contains animation stills from the film as well as transcripts of interviews, photographs, and Cobain's artwork that were not featured in the film. Two editions of the book were published. Insight Editions published the North American edition, which contains 160 pages (ISBN 978-1608875498). Omnibus Press published the British edition, which contains 208 pages, under the name Kurt Cobain: A Montage of Heck (ISBN 978-1783059669).