20,000 Days on Earth (Review)

Opening with one of the most fast-paced montages in recent memory. Before the title has even emerged on screen fans will are treated to a treasure trove of little seen live footage and memorabilia in tantalizingly small fits and starts.

Those fans will be Nick Cave fans. I will stand up and admit from the start that I am a Nick Cave fan. So for the purposes of this review I will be writing as a fan of all things Cave-related. It will be my intention to ask my non-fan girlfriend to watch and I’ll write up her thoughts on the film (I should probably mention this idea to her). When word of this project popped up last year – a “fictionalized documentary” about a day in the life of Nick Cave, featuring scenes of him driving around Brighton with Ray Winstone and Kylie Minogue in toe, discussing life in depth, all these things seemed like a wondrous prospect. Relatively guarded in interview, though quite prolific with when it comes to speaking to journalists, it might be best to say that he opens up most through his lyrics about his philosophies and past life. A song-writer and performer for over 30 years now, along with his ever-changing but consistently brilliant outfit The Bad Seeds, Cave has amassed a popularity that verges on God-like in some circles.

This was a film I very much wanted to enjoy. Unfortunately I have a track record of being disappointed by things I am genuinely excited to see.

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The first thing that becomes evident as the film begins is that this will not be your by-the-numbers “rockumentary”. The look of the visuals and the flow of the camera showcase the talents of visual artists and here directors Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard. Cave’s opening voice over as he wakes (in a room familiar to those familiar with the Push the Sky Away album cover), we see the intricacies of his surface life. The silk bedding, the bespoke bathroom, the old fashioned alarm clock. His narration begins an internal poetry that those familiar with his work may think of as classic Cave musings on the macabre notion of simply getting up every day. Non-fans may also find this monologue a little laboured or worst pretentious, well you may not enjoy the rest of the film then.

The film acts as a collection of scenes, scraps on a note-pad made whole due to the benefit of sound and vision. There is no plot as such but the whole piece feels like it’s a work leading to a crescendo. Whether it’s the climax of the day or the end of Cave’s own life. His ever-present voice over discusses everything from his own writing process – where we see him sat his type writer or making countless notes in his diary – his philosophies, his memories. Delivered by Cave everything has a level of import no matter how trivial. One story which gets a couple of mentions in the film is a memory of Nina Simone playing at his curated Meltdown Festival where she took out her chewing gum and stared the audience down before breaking into one of the finest performances he’d ever witnessed. The story is recounted twice. Firstly to an interviewer in a set-up that acts more of a confessional to a psychiatrist and shows the writer and his most candid than he has ever been in real interviews. Secondly he remembers it to band-mate and longtime collaborator Warren Ellis over an idyllic looking lunch of cooked eels and buttered bread.

A wonderful bit of trivia, slightly unnerving to know what a tyrant she was back stage, but also a fantastic little touch that shows that days are filled with repeats. The same stories being told again. It is a lovely moment of real-life creeping into a world that through the virtue of its own polished look can sometimes appear overly staged. The three stand out scenes of oddness are, of course, the highly feted scenes of Cave driving about with Ray Winstone, Kylie Minogue and (perhaps most importantly but under mentioned) Blixa Bargeld. Whilst the conversations with Winstone and Minogue are undoubtedly interesting and gets their considerable names on the poster. It’s the talk with Bargeld that is the really intriguing scene. Bargeld had been one of The Bad Seeds original members for 20 years before leaving the band after 2003’s ‘Nocturama’. Not much has ever been said as to why and the two artists have rarely been seen together since. So with that in mind the scene between them both captures a real moment of pathos and some regret as Cave explains he was at a creative cross-roads as was Bargeld who also had personal reason.

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Aside from these moments there’s also a wealth of behind-the-scenes recording sessions of the Push the Sky Away album. A constant change of delightful shirts highlights another day in the studio as Cave and his Bad Seeds cohorts (particular Warren Ellis) slowly tease music out of his notepad. One moment Ellis is conducting a French children’s choir as the disembodied voice Cave can be heard at his piano, the next they are crouched, bag against the wall delivering vocals that are almost slam poetry. Some songs that didn’t even make it on to the album are glimpsed at as are other Bad Seeds members Conway Savage, Thomas Wydler and Jim Sclavunous (who really should have popped up more). Rehearsal footage and smaller club shows built to a mighty climax as the band perform a spectacular rendition of ‘Jubilee Street’ at the Sydney Opera House. If it hasn’t been a favourite up until now you may find it on repeat on your shuffle soon.

The real treasure is to be found in “the archive” where a team of archivists show Cave photos from his past as he explains their significance. It’s a grand idea to think that there should be a Nick Cave archive, I kind of hope there is one. As he self-effacingly narrates each items meaning you may also wander what kind of ego would have a private museum for himself? Nick Cave that’s whom, the non-nonsense, ethereal, introverted poet come snarl and spit rock star.

Not just a joy for the die-hards but a genuinely fascinating piece of cinema for anyone who is the least bit interested in the creative process of any art form.

’20,000 Days on Earth’ is released theatrically 19th September 2014.