A review of Nick Cave’s kind of bio – the film ‘20,000 Days on Earth’ – it sounds excellent.
You’re unlikely to have seen another music film like 20,000 Days on Earth. But when your subject matter is Nick Cave, would you really expect the conventional linear, birth-to- maturity unpicking of a life?
If you want a “trad” rock documentary – Cave’s life and loves, endless archival footage, time spent on the past – you may find Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard’s film strangely unsatisfying.
It assumes that you already know most of the man’s musical backstory – his early days in the Melbourne punk scene, the art-rock band Boys Next Door, the manically violent Birthday Party, and all the work Cave has done with the Bad Seeds and Grinderman since.
With the exception of a hectic opening montage, in which visual snapshots of this trajectory are spliced together to an ear-splitting crescendo of noise, 20,000 Days on Earth is not – despite the title – a chronological survey of Cave’s musical career. Much of it focuses on the recording of the Bad Seeds’ most recent album, Push the Sky Away, and Cave’s often somewhat abstract, elliptical thoughts on songwriting, album recording and live performing.
As a document of one man’s interpretation of the creative process, then, it’s a fascinating ride but it’s also oddly disjointed, jumping from recording- studio scenes to fun little vignettes in which Cave, among other things, talks to a psychiatrist, has lunch with bearded bandmate Warren Ellis during which he is regaled with some hilarious anecdotes about a memorable Nina Simone concert, and shares a car with three friends and colleagues who help to reveal some aspect of his remarkable journey actor Ray Winstone, former Bad Seed Blixa Bargeld, and Where the Wild Roses Grow collaborator Kylie Minogue.
Most revealing is Cave’s sit-down with a shrink, during which his pain at the loss of his father at the age of 19 is shown in one incredibly poignant moment. Asked about the death of his father, Cave, who is elsewhere articulate, funny, intelligent and forthcoming, loses his words, his face transforming into a state of shattered, crestfallen pain. It’s one of the most honest moments in a film that manages simultaneously to unravel a little bit of the Cave persona while retaining its enigmatic quality.
Another fascinating moment is Cave’s visit to what is casually referred to as “the archives”, where white-gloved handlers ask him details about his extensive diaries, notebooks, photos and other paraphernalia accumulated over four decades of music making.
This is as close as the film ever gets to conventional biography. We learn a little about Cave’s romantic entanglements and erotic fixations – and how they have shaped his lyrical obsessions over the years – and his long years of drug addiction, which seemed to fuel rather than suppress his creativity.
What emerges most clearly from 20,000 Days on Earth is that Cave’s focus on the present – his desire to muse on the artistic process rather than revisit the personal ghosts of the past – says more about the man than any warts’n’all expose might have. This film seems to be saying: “Whatever you need to know about my life is in my lyrics, my singing, my performance. All the ghosts, all the memories of my past can be found there.”
Another continuing refrain through the film is Cave’s obsessive desire for “the transformative moment” – the becoming-someone-else that happens during live performance. Perhaps this is what’s most impressive about Cave, who at this stage of a long and revered career could be resting on his laurels and phoning in his performances to his adoring crowds. Unlike so many rockers of his vintage, who seem to be trotting out the concerts simply to line depleted coffers, he has not lost the desire to connect with his audience at some deeper, more transcendental level.
Indeed, Winstone asks him if he ever gets sick of going on stage after all these years. “Sick of it,” he answers, voice incredulous. “I live for it.”