From a distance, the synopsis of About a Son sounds like a documentary made up of spare parts. Featuring audio taken from Michael Azerrad's interviews with Kurt Cobain for Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana, there are no live performances from Nirvana, on-camera interviews or any Nirvana songs in it. But instead of thinking this is like that joke in Student Bodies where Lamab High had to put on a non-musical version of Grease because they couldn't get the rights to the songs, About a Son's strengths are elsewhere. What you don't typically see in a documentary about somebody makes for a way more powerful experience, at least in my mind.
I'll admit I had some reservations about seeing this film, so let me clear them out of the way. First of all, despite most of the interviews taking place during overnight hours, the conversations are lively and Kurt is very well-spoken. Secondly, the quotes' subject matter do not turn bleak until the very end. For the most part, they are interesting and engaging and rarely veer off into la-la land. Third, the camera often moves or shows movement, so it doesn't get bogged down by static, boring shots. Lastly, the film looks beautiful, especially with its vivid shades of blue and green.
In regards to the lack of Nirvana songs and performances, About a Son shows more through what Kurt experienced himself. Hearing a Scratch Acid or a Queen song or songs Nirvana would later cover (like "The Man Who Sold the World") gives a better idea of where Kurt was coming from. Rather than recalling from your own memory of what Scratch Acid sounds like (or even if you've never heard them before), this technique incredibly helps set the mood.
Though it demystifies tabloid-ish type stuff on the band and Courtney Love, it never devolves into rock star moaning and groaning. More than anything, the film humanizes Kurt, and in a good way. Rather than paint him as a spokesman for a generation that has long since passed, the film's core is about what it's really like to be an outsider. Be it growing up in Aberdeen, hanging out in Olympia or being in a very popular rock band, the feelings Kurt expresses are timeless and pretty universal.
The way I see it, if About a Son were to have all the typical things found in a documentary on a rock star, it wouldn't be as strong. Besides, for those that want the live Nirvana performances, there are the Live! Tonight! Sold Out!, Unplugged in New York and With the Lights Out DVDs. Plus, there's the whole assortment of other performances, interviews and documentaries on YouTube. This, however, is something well worth watching whether you're a hardcore fan, casual fan or just curious.