20,000 Days on Earth

Directed by Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard

Written by Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard & Nick Cave
Starring Nick Cave, Warren Ellis, Ray Winstone & Kylie Minogue
In UK Cinemas September 19th, 2014

by Lewis Church

This widely anticipated Nick Cave documentary is every bit as meticulously stylised as the man himself. It nestles amongst Cave’s previous film work, The Proposition and Lawless, as comfortably as the medallion glinting out from his perpetually open collar. The film is directed by Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard, visual artists and past collaborators of the musician, and shares producers and a certain cinematographic richness with Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin. From the Man-Who-Fell-To-Earth opening sequence, which ticks away days of Cave’s life through a bank of TV monitors, to the final lingering shot of a solitary beach, 20,000 Days on Earth does not so much document the making of the 2013 album Push the Sky Away as fictionalise and mythologise the man who made it. It follows Cave through a single day in his adopted hometown, with obviously staged but nevertheless tender encounters with a psychoanalyst, previous collaborators, and with Nick Cave archivists.

During his long drive through Brighton and the surrounding areas, Cave engages in conversation with figures from his past. Kylie Minogue, in the back seat of his car on fame, Ray Winstone (from The Proposition) geezering away on age. Warren Ellis makes eel pasta and talks of many meals shared, and former Bad Seed Blixa Bargeld muses on the creative process and the end of their collaboration. Despite these obvious set pieces and carefully constructed dialogue, the film is surprisingly and disarmingly intimate. Footage is shot inside Cave’s actual Brighton home (those of us who follow such things will recognise his bedroom from the front cover of the album) and with his children. His study walls are on show. With the infiltration of a camera into the inner sanctum, the issue of performing a persona is ever present, Cave acknowledging the necessity of always being ‘on’, of living up to his rock star status. He, like the film, is part of a constructed version of reality, symbolic and iconizing. It’s what his fans want, what the film needs and ultimately, what he strives to be: godlike rock star and omnipotent stage presence. He walks into Brighton like a cartoon for NME teenagers. This is not a film which will show its subject low and unguarded, his sovereign rings never come off and his hair is never uncombed. As one of the directors says, “Nick can’t act. But he is brilliant at being Nick Cave”.

Between the conversations, startling live performances reveal themselves, longer than would be usual for a conventional rockumentary and carefully shot. The sound design of these sections of music deserves special mention, as the pops and mutters of each voice and instrument are perfectly balanced and enveloping. The recording of a track, the invisible communication between a rehearsing band and the charge of a crowd are captured meticulously. In many ways this live music is the highlight, powerful and unique in its performance. At his most messianic, Cave puts the hand of an overcome fan on his chest, sultrily asking in a microphone whisper whether she can feel his heart beating. She sure can. It may not win over many new fans to Cave or his music, and the relentless stylisation may indeed turn off people with low tolerances for the dandy gothic. But truthfully the audience for 20,000 Days on Earth is already there; it’s the people seen rapt and doe-eyed in the concert crowds.

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