Too many rock documentaries are either a tabloid-like attempt to picture a performer in an unflattering light and shake out some dirt, or the kind of uninterestingly flattering, self-promoting portraits we know so well from VH1’s Behind the Music. Most of them do nothing more than mix some concert footage with shots of hysterical fans adding a bunch talking heads, and in the process they all end up looking like the exact same film. Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard’s 20,000 Days on Earth is something completely different. So different, actually, that it shouldn’t be considered a proper documentary at all.
It is not a fiction, either. Instead, it gives an impression of Nick Cave’s four-decade career as a singer, songwriter, poet-preacher and indisputable legend — his teenage years as the front man for the brutal post-punk band The Birthday Party; his band of over 30 years, The Bad Seeds; the Garage Rocksound of his recent side project Grinderman —, putting together pieces of his identity into a whole that is consistently fascinating and goes much deeper into the man and his art than any straightforwardly realistic approach would.
As its title makes clear, the film chronicles Cave’s 20,000th day on Earth, but maybe not exactly how that day really went. The filmmakers — visual artists who have been making videos with the man for nearly a decade — opt for a more impressionistic approach made out of poetic aphorisms, casual encounters, ghost-like visitations and some Freudian psychoanalysis. And in between all those staged scenarios that seemingly come together organically, and where Cave improvises naturally — a lunch with Warren Ellis, his longest-serving collaborator; a visit to an archive loaded with memorabilia from his past; a pizza shared with his twin sons while watching Scarface (1983) —, we’re treated to scenes of The Bad Seeds working through material that will eventually morph into Push The Sky Away, his hypnotically melancholic album from 2013.
In describing his writing process, Cave compares himself to a cannibal, chewing up experiences and spitting them out as songs. “Songwriting is about counterpoint, like letting a child into the same room as a Mongolian psychopath”, he adds. Along the way, he seems particularly pleased to enlarge his own mythology, but his playful self-deprecation prevents the film from falling into egomaniacal territory. “I was always a kind of ostentatious bastard”, he confesses at one point.
Eventually, two main consistent themes come out in 20.000 Days on Earth. First, memory as an unreliable thing. Since we don’t rediscover memories but we rewrite them each time we revisit them, how can we know if we stay close to any truth? Anyway, the memories of our lives constitute who we are, and this documentary is about, more than anything else, Cave confronting his past. He does it through; a visit to a therapist, who draws him out on subjects like his childhood in rural Australia, his father, his first sexual experience, his drug-use days, his religious beliefs and, of course, his fear of losing his memories; hallucinatory encounters in his car with people from his past like Kylie Minogue with whom he recorded the 1995 duet “Where the Wild Roses Grow”, a rare mainstream hit in The Bad Seeds’ career; and past band mate Blixa Bargeld, who didn’t speak to Nick for nearly twenty years; and hilarious anecdotes like the day when, during a Birthday Party gig, a “German person” urinated on bassist Tracey Pew.
But 20.000 Days on Earth is also a meditation on the transformative nature of performance. Cave remembers a night when he played as a supporting artist for Nina Simone and how, after getting some cocaine, champagne and sausages, she went onstage to become a truly Godlike figure. Later, he admits that he becomes superhuman himself when he takes to the stage. “Being on stage meant I got to be that person I always wanted to be”, he says. Although Cave’s skeletal frame, both menacing and gothically elegant, is only occasionally seen onstage performing electrifying versions of “Higgs Boson Blues”, “Jubilee Street” and “Stagger Lee”, one has the feeling that, for him, the world is a stage.
The Nick Cave of 20.000 Days on Earth is a character in his own fully inhabited fiction, and an unreliable narrator that won’t reveal anything he doesn’t want revealed. It’s all a performance, but as any good concert makes clear, theatrics can be honest expression. Ultimately, deliciously pretentious artifice coexists with authenticity, both Cave’s persona, and in this captivating, poetic, provocative, and extremely moving film, an inviting look at a musician exploring the meaning of his own art, and a source of inspiration for anyone in search of a muse.
Edited by Tara Judah
© FIPRESCI 2014