Ninety minutes with Nick Cave
A casual mention of Nick Cave will often elicit either the rolling of one’s eyes or a gushing admission of fandom. And the Australian frontman and songwriter’s somewhat overbearing personality, which in many ways is inseparable from the music, does make it hard for any would-be fence-sitters to avoid choosing a camp.
As such, the film “20,000 Days on Earth” (released in September of this year), won’t likely make any converts out of those already turned off by Cave’s high-flown manner, but for others, this unique look at the artist should be a treat.
Ostensibly, the movie is billed as a “documentary,” however this categorization fails to account for much of what the film truly does.
There are, indeed, scenes devoted to illuminating the progression of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ songwriting process, or capturing a powerful live performance. But much of the film consists of strangely choreographed sequences of a scripted version of daily life, often accompanied by a voiceover from Cave on some abstract subject or another.
This nature of fiction mixed with reality is no accident. Cave is clearly concerned with the interaction between life and art and has been for a long time (his archives — yes, he has archives — prove as much.)
The film begins with Cave leaving bed in the morning and offering a confession of sorts. A voiceover states that he has always felt like a cannibal, the significance of which undoubtedly refers to the artist’s (‘the artist’ as in all artists, not just Cave) constant plundering of those around him or her for material to create. This becomes a key theme among many.
Another theme of much concern to him is the transformative aspect of art and performance. This notion was first introduced to Cave by his father who would read the first chapter of Lolita to him when he was young, and while doing so, appeared to change into “something else.”
That second theme, by the way, is revealed in a deliberately Freudian interview that borders on comical but still produces some heartfelt responses. He fondly reminisces of his childhood. He admits his biggest fear to be losing his memory, claiming that “memory is who we are,” and that it grants us the ability to mythologize. He reveals that his interest in God (God and religion are frequent and long-standing subjects in his songs) was directly linked to the time in his life when he did a lot of drugs.
Sprinkled throughout the film are a series of conversations that Cave has while driving. These stylized segments add new voices to what might be a monotone of one artist. People ride, say their piece, exchanging on deep thoughts and, in a blink, they’re gone.
The camera cuts them out, but not before he can commiserate with an old bandmate about how the songs you don’t fully understand are the best. Again he broaches how performance is a metamorphoses, this time with an actor leaning over the center console, who knows well that feeling. When asked, Cave concedes from behind large sunglasses that has reached a point he where can no longer reinvent himself, but nor does he want to.
Later, Cave has lunch at Warren Ellis’ house, a current bandmate. They share fond memories of past shows, both recalling with laughter how a frightening Nina Simone once scared a packed stadium merely with her presence before sticking her chewing gum on the piano and playing an amazing set.
And when the live footage of Cave and his own band comes on, you can see something of the transformation that so preoccupies him. The songs take on a totally different air. They seem to make more sense as he sings them crouching over an audience and the faces before him truly appear to be in awe, swooning not from the fact of his celebrity, but from the gravity of his performance.