“At the end of the 20th century I ceased being a human being… That’s not necessarily a bad thing,” Nick Cave
Music documentaries are ten a penny, and most carry the whiff of hagiography; every so often though, filmmakers and artists go against the grain and we get a MISTAKEN FOR STRANGERS (on The National) and now 20,000 DAYS ON EARTH. Experiment, narrative and non-fiction swirl to portray a dissection of creativity and performance. At 97 minutes, the only complaint is being too short. Each scene was desired to have gone on longer, to continue the insight proffered.
Fans of rock bands The Birthday Party, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds and Grinderman, some of the different incarnations of the hardworking singer-songwriter, now have an unusual, almost dreamlike foray into his mind. Using as a skeleton to hang its ideas on, directors Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard have created a fictional day for Nick Cave to be followed around. In amongst the artificial construct is, counter-intuitively, a way for sincere analysis to find a home.
Birth cries launch us into a maelstrom of banked television sets blaring Cave imagery, over his long career, to take us to the present day as he awakens. Poetic voice-over from the subject leads us from his en-suite, to the study where artistic juices begin to be squeezed from the brain. Analogue instruments catch the eye for their anachronous use: Cave hammers out lyrics on a typewriter, a voice reminder on a cassette-based telephone answering machine, and at creative partner Warren Ellis’ made-up home a stove kettle gives them a brew to chat over.
Rather than go Errol Morris or Alex Gibney and have the case study grilled, fascinating conversations unspool illumination. Firstly, a gentle probing by psychoanalyst Darian Leader of a game Cave could have filled half the runtime (it was so engaging). Getting into Nick Cave’s childhood and certain memories are surprisingly emotional, for the audience as well as the interviewee. Realising what gold they have unearthed, the Darian-Nick tête-à- tête is allowed to be intercut for the next part of the day’s activities.
Brighton, England has become home for the Australian multi-hyphenate, “Got to drop anchor somewhere.” Writing and recording and performing the album ‘Push the Sky Away’ is condensed into this 24-hour period. Intercutting its birth with perspicacity, at one point Cave says that songwriting is about counterpoint – two disparate images letting the sparks fly. Don’t let the idea of an experimental documentary lull you into anticipating po-faced self-obsession. Humour and seemingly honest observations (wrung from unexpected means) give the pace a subtle impetus. Lean like its subject, 20,000 DAYS ON EARTH doesn’t waste time.
Sidestepping being overawed, the film uses Cave conversing with his peers in his car (are they really there?) to fathom out. Ray Winstone, Blixa Bargeld and Kylie Minogue discuss, for example, age, the Bad Seeds and performance, to enlightening effect. Wait till you get to his archive; it’s Proustian.
But where was the survey of Cave’s cinematic output? From writing the likes of GHOSTS OF THE CIVIL DEAD and THE PROPOSITION, to composing the score to THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD and WEST OF MEMPHIS, there is a whole host of questions to be asked.
Shot beautifully by Erik Wilson (SUBMARINE, TYRANNOSAUR) and scored ethereally by Warren Ellis and Cave, 20,000 DAYS ON EARTH is as handsome a documentary as Errol Morris utilising the skills of cinematographer Robert Richardson.
And we are not short-changed a charged climax.