By: Erik Swift
The notion of Kurt Cobain turning forty is intriguing. Had he not emphatically shut the doors to Nirvana with his 1994 suicide, he would have hit the milestone February 20. Picturing another scenario for him is commonplace, but my favorite is a hermit Kurt disappearing into the Pacific Northwest, emerging after years of silence to embrace the internet and become the only blogger worth reading. Typing away in a ramshackle cabin behind a pair of granny glasses, far from idiot interviewers and fair weather fans, his musings on the celebrity bilge masquerading as rock and roll would become must-reads, while his thoughts on the Foo Fighters (“Dave, why?”), Creed (“Thank you for finally breaking up”) and Courtney frolicking with Billy Corgan (“I’m so glad you two have each other to expand your creative talents”) make his website one of the most-traveled…but he didn’t do any of that. He’s dead.
The tragedy halted work on a film Cobain conceived about the trio’s meteoric rise after completing the seminal “Nevermind.” Grieving bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl would put the finishing touches on it with editor Steve MacCorkle and director Kevin Kerslake, and in November 1994 “Live! Tonight! Sold Out!” became an unexpected visual requiem with the album “MTV Unplugged In New York.” Similar to this year’s DVD premieres of “Zoo TV: Live At Sydney” and “Pulse,” Universal’s DVD of the film has taken time to arrive because much of it was shot on video; if U2 and Pink Floyd’s releases needed heavy enhancement before hitting DVD, this one had to need triple. Punk rock films are always high-energy low-quality affairs, and “Live! Tonight! Sold Out!” was never different until now. Color-corrected and digitally remastered with 5.1 audio, it looks much better than those stacks of 15-year-old videotapes that are the source for this wild 83-minute film.
Save a 1993 gig in Sao Paulo, “Live! Tonight! Sold Out!” was shot across the globe during the band’s 1991-1992 tour behind their sophomore album. It’s a gallop, including everything from “Lithium” at their memorable Reading Festival set to snippets of a now-legendary “Saturday Night Live” appearance. Five songs shot by Dutch television at Amsterdam’s Paradiso make up the bonus features and are some of the better-filmed stuff here. Fittingly, a Halloween ’92 Seattle gig looks the best, while a sole camera captures Nirvana in Honolulu, Tokyo and Dallas (where it catches an unexpected show-ending brawl that begins when Kurt hurls himself into the crowd only to raise a nearby bouncer’s ire). The home video material is crap, but it is what it is: a mesmerizing glimpse into Nirvana and a reminder that this band never conformed. The first song is the b-side “Aneurysm,” its guttural churn slaying the Paradiso attendees, and don’t miss Dave Grohl slamming his drum kit after it cuts to Sao Paulo mid-performance. Their deconstruction of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on “Top Of The Pops” is classic, but being introduced by Jonathon Ross before an audience expecting “Lithium” only to launch into “Territorial Pissings” instead is a riot. Even opening the DVD case is against the norm – the disc is on the left side. How appropriate for this band.
Having directed multiple Nirvana videos, Kerslake’s film nails Nirvana’s essence because he and MacCorkle keep it simple: during one interview they talk of large shows’ anemia before jumping into a halfhearted “Dive” in front of thousands in Brazil. Better is a ripping “On A Plain” at Roskilde, sandwiched between a pair of loathing media montages as Cobain bleats “I love myself better than you. I’m on a plain, I can’t complain.” Right. Thankfully, the chitchat is minimal and “Live! Tonight! Sold Out!” shows them doing what they did best: kicking ass onstage. It’s a smoldering document of Nirvana’s brief existence and against-all-odds spirit that lives on in every great indie band today.