20,000 Days on Earth
This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, August 2014
For a film like this, you almost need two reviews: one for the fans, for whom Nick Cave’s rambling musings will never be less than treacle to their ears; and one for filmgoers who may be only mildly interested in the Australian rockstar as an Actual Person but may appreciate the twist on the documentary artform.
With those caveats in mind, here’s the rundown:
Cave has collaborated with British artists Jane Pollard and Iain Forsyth to produce a necessarily self-conscious, sometimes delightful, often ponderous, mash-up of the documentary trope. The conventional style would have had the directors following him around and capturing the “true” essence of Cave-life, the highs and lows, and delivering a searing portrait of the troubled genius soul. This is the type of (usually contrived) fare put out by the likes of Katy Perry, whose Part of Me film was fascinating but ultimately so constructed that watching the beleaguered singer wave a frail hand at the camera, begging privacy, actually antagonised this viewer for its total BS.
But several things set 20,000 Days apart from the purported cinéma vérité model (which aims to be observational, fly-on-the-wall, unbiased). First there is the voiceover – spouted by Cave himself, and not a running commentary but more of his rambling musings – matched to beautifully-photographed images. Then there is the dream sequence of entertaining conversations Cave has with various notables (Kylie Minogue offers insights; Ray Winstone delivers a humorous science lesson) as he drives them around in a car. Far from vérité, the film was in fact constructed by Cave and his artist-directors as an imagined Day in the Life – Cave’s 20,000th day on Earth – and the gambit works reasonably well in giving us a taste of what the lanky fella does with his time.
Where it gets self-indulgent, the fans will lap it up. There’s a lot of Cave tapping away at his old-school typewriter, driving off to recording sessions, giving live performances. Aficionados will luxuriate in the three long tracks played in full (there is an ironic conversation about editing one’s work which seems lost on Cave when it comes to writing his songs) although others may find them sleep-inducing.
Perhaps the most fascinating moments happen in the therapist’s office, as a frightfully nice English chap (Cave lives in Brighton nowadays) probes gently into Cave’s childhood and that old chestnut, one’s relationship with one’s father. Though there are no brutal or startling revelations, the sessions serve up a fascinating anecdote about Nina Simone and reveal the gentleman Cave has become.