Aussie rocker Nick Cave is one fascinating cat: the longtime frontman and songwriter of the Bad Seeds, a brilliant poet and personal essayist, a visual and multimedia artist.
He’s way too cutting edge for mass popularity (his only true hit record was “Where the Wild Roses Grow,” a duet with Kylie Minogue, and that was a skin-crawling ballad about obsession and murder), and it makes perfect sense that Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard’s documentary about Cave is an unconventional, kaleidoscopic vision lacking anything like a straightforward biography.
And yet “20,000 Days on Earth” (the title refers to the fact that Cave was 54 years old when it was made) is not just about one man but about the nature of artistic creation. It is, in fact, one of the best films I’ve ever seen on that subject.
While the film captures Cave performing several songs in rehearsal, the recording studio, and on stage, its primary focus is on a series of revealing conversations between Cave and others: his longtime bandmate Warren Ellis, Minogue, actor and friend Ray Winstone, psychologist Darian Leader (author of What is Madness?).
These verbal encounters have all the naturalness of a spontaneous chat…yet that cannot be. They have been filmed and edited with the sort of care lavished on big-budget fiction films, with beautiful lighting, stunning frame composition, multiple camera angles.
It’s almost as if Forsyth and Pollard had shot the film as conventional documentary — handheld cameras, natural lighting — and then re-staged each scene, employing the same dialogue (or actually improving it) but capturing it with all the gloss and polish of the best moivie studio resources.
The resulting movie is achingly sensuous. It’s just so damn beautiful.
Which is a bit ironic since Nick Cave is himself not physically beautiful. He’s a skinny wraith usually clad in hipster black. He’s got stringy black hair, no chin, a porcine nose, and much of the time wears out-sized yellow-tinted aviator glasses.
But if some find the wrapping offputting, what’s inside is mesmerizing.
“Mostly I feel like a cannibal,” he says in opening narration about his artistic endeavors. He commiserates with his wife Susie (she’s camera shy and we only see her sleeping), because every moment of their life together is material for his art. Their intimacy, transmuted into music, is usually “inflated, distorted, monstrous,” Cave confesses.
But creating music make him feel alive: “A song stares down our own extinction.” And Cave admits that performing provides the sort of high that keeps him going. When it’s really clicking, he says, "You can be God-like for a moment.”
Cave shows us around the beach resort town of Brighton, England, where he now resides. He visits his bandmate Ellis in the latter’s cottage with a spectacular view of Dover’s white cliffs.
Two of the film’s segments feature reminiscences of brilliant performances Cave and Ellis have witnessed — one with Nina Simone, the other with an aging Jerry Lee Lewis. They represent storytelling of the highest order.
We visit Caves personal archive — a carefully curated library of photos, scribblings, handbills, sketches, and memorabilia from throughout his working career (does the guy throw away anything?) that provides insight into and inspiration for his process.
In the recording study Cave mesmerizes us with songs like “Give Us a Kiss” and “Higgs Bosun Blues.” He seduces an audience with performances of “Higgs Bosun…” and “Jubilee Street” and he is so freaking good that some concertgoers are reduced to tears (you may be, too.)
“20,000 Days…” isn’t a how-to movie. Cave doesn’t methodically tell us how he does what he does. But by eavesdropping we get a sense of how he is driven to turn every experience into art.
Don’t be surprised if you leave this film wanting desperately to create as well.