by Kathie Smith
20,000 Days on Earth, a casually plotted day-in-the-life of Nick Cave, starts with a wall of monitors, art installation style, flashing through visual transmissions and dissonant sounds of Cave’s personal era: early days as a child in Australia to raucous punk shows of hair and spit. It’s an appropriate opening to the first feature by Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard—artists in their own right—whose honed skills in both performance and multi-media platforms lend an upper hand to this surprisingly elegant docudrama. The monitors might be a nod to the duo’s own high art leanings, but the iteration of images is like the layers of Cave’s random access memory files built over his lifetime, an introduction to the material nimbly packaged in this non-traditional biopic.
The Film Society of Minneapolis/St Paul
Directors: Iain Forsyth, Jane Pollard
Producers: Dan Bowen, James Wilson
Writers: Iain Forsyth, Jane Pollard, Nick Cave
Cinematographer: Erik Wilson
Editor: Jonathan Amos
Music: Nick Cave, Warren Ellis
Cast: Nick Cave, Warren Ellis, Ray Winstone, Blixa Bargeld, Kylie Minogue, Susie Bick, Darian Leader, Arthur Cave, Earl Cave, Thomas Wydler, Martyn Casey, Conway Savage, Jim Sciavunos, Barry Adamson, George Vjestica
Premiere: January 20, 2014 – Sundance Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: September 19, 2014
US Distributor: Drafthouse Films
20,000 Days on Earth walks us through a symbolic day where he does indeed wake, write, eat and watch TV: he sets himself down in front of his typewriter, enjoys a lunch with longtime collaborator and Bad Seed Warren Ellis, and watches TV with his two young sons. But in between he also visits his therapist, rehearses and records a song, visits an archive amassing his photos and papers, and performs a cathartic live show in front of thousands of adoring fans. Cave is cast in his own story as a living legend, something that he himself acknowledges as alien. In his own words: “At the end of the 20th century, I cease to be a human being.”
Contrary to how this might sound, the mood of 20,000 Days on Earth is far more reflective than self-congratulatory, reaching for the nuances of a creative life. Cave’s therapy session feels like a legitimate attempt to share as opposed to making a satirical riff on a clichéd rock star confessional. The comfort and honesty that Cave has in speaking about his fears, his childhood, and his mistakes builds a rapport with the audience that is rare for any kind of feature, let alone one profiling a musician.
Equally effective are the interludes with friends as Cave is driving his Jaguar from appointment to appointment: Ray Winstone, who acted in The Proposition, penned by Cave; former Bad Seed Blixa Bargeld; and Kylie Minogue, who shared a hit single with Cave on “Where the Wild Roses Grow” in 1996. Without introduction, the uninvited guests simply appear individually in the passenger seat—or, in the case of Minogue, appropriately chauffeured from the back seat—as conversational apparitions who banter with Cave on music, family, performing, and the power of live shows.
Co-directors Forsyth and Pollard orchestrate a delicate balance that finds the narrative space for both the God-like rock star as well as the unconventional everyman. This sensibility is mirrored in the craft of the movie, planned to perfection while maintaining a casual ambiance. 20,000 Days on Earth’s meandering structure floats with a certain effortlessness that evokes pleasure from being in the moment, and specifically, being in the moment with Cave: in his house, a curated cabinet of curiosities; sitting beside him listening to his story about Nina Simone; or at a live performance as he puts his all into “Higgs Boson Blues.”
At one point, Cave explains that songwriting is about counterpoints. (His figurative example: put a child in a room with a Mongolian psychopath and see what happens.) If there is a counterpoint in 20,000 Days on Earth, it is found in Cave: the fallible human—his disappearing chin and receding hairline—and the icon—his impeccable clothes and earned arrogance. But just in the same way that Cave’s songwriting counterpoints are wrestled into singular visions, Forsyth and Pollard’s creation contains Cave’s counterpoints with a great deal of artistic compassion. This unconventional portrait might resonate much louder with Cave’s fans and followers than the casual viewer, but it’s nonetheless a movie that pushes the rock documentary genre to stylish new heights.