Directors: Iain Forsyth, Jane Pollard
Here is Nick Cave – running about his day, his 20,000th day on earth – here is Nick Cave in a film that is part impressionistic doco, part subverted feature film, it’s the rock-doc as prose-poem, and it’s been co-created with love (and – the necessary – pomp) by Cave and directors Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard. It speaks to Cave’s aesthetic, showcases the visual-arts background of the film’s makers, it’s visually sumptuous and engaging, there’s a playfulness to the way Cave and the film’s directors are clearly mocking the very idea of pretentiousness.
If you walk out of 20,000 Days on Earth (including actually walking out on it) with a thin charge of pretentiousness then you’re forgetting that it’s a film about a guy who made an album of modern murder ballads, who has written novels – including one with the lofty title, And The Ass Saw The Angel, and another that’s a long, silly porn-joke; there have been lectures on love songs and one act plays including the one where a woman masturbates with a crucifix until blood runs down each thigh – the entire act over, wordless, in 90 seconds or so. C’mon people! Do better than that. Charges of being pretentious were levelled at Cave long before this film and they’ll pop up again sure as he’ll disappear off to make more movie soundtracks, to write scripts and to return with character-songs as the arch preacher, the medicine-man conjurer of religious fervour and agnostic fury.
So this film not only plays to most of the strings in Cave’s bow – it celebrates something of a rebirth, or reconnection, the making of his Push The Sky Away album; his best in a while. There are concert-footage moments and rehearsals and there’s an exploration – a quiet, lovely exploration – of Cave the constant collaborator. We see this in the conversations with Warren Ellis, he’s taken over the role that Mick Harvey once had, that Blixa Bargeld had, that others have had in other areas. Cave and Ellis speak the same language musically across Bad Seeds, Grinderman and the soundtrack work. And in glimpses of conversations that aren’t so much staged as they are brilliantly edited we get an insight into just how much these two live and breathe music – the visceral aspect of performance so crucial to them both, so clear then in their own performances.
What emerges is a hero-tale, really. Here’s Cave at arguably the top of his game – certainly no fall from grace, no “comeback” as such – most music films deal with a fallout or falling out, some struggle for redemption. But here’s Cave pushing past boredom to turn up at his desk each day and write. Hit those keys. Hammer out songs and words and thoughts. We only need a brief mention – no need for huge detail – that he survived junkie-dom, found love, created a family and hit the hard-work button. That should be inspiring. I found it hugely inspiring.
But the film has fun with imagined conversations between Cave and some of his fleeting collaborators – the actor Ray Winstone, Blixa, Kylie Minogue. And in one scene we have Cave home from work enjoying Scarface with his sons. Silly fun – but deft observations too. This is the harmony that Cave has created, the violence in so much of his work, no such discordance at home.
Somehow, 20,000 Days on Earth plays out as earnest folly. And if you’ve enjoyed Cave’s songs where he places himself in the murdering role and then stops to check how wonderful his hair looks, you’ll recognise that earnest folly and subversion of moral culpability, of truth, of the word made flesh and the flesh-made world is all part of his plan – pretentiousness and all.
What I loved most about 20,000 Days on Earth was that it offered so many clues – even in this stylised account. Glimpses, insights, lovely observations – a charming off-guardedness. And yet the enigma is still there. This doesn’t define Cave in any crucial way – it’s a sketch. It gives off the right energy – you can place him because of this. It traces around the truth.
I also like that this film will maybe make fans out of non-fans, but will certainly polarise the existing fans – some committed Cave fans might well have hated this. But that’s okay. We’re all wrong sometimes. Well, most of us…