Review: 20,000 Days on Earth
PLOT: A fictitious day in the life of musician Nick Cave, who sings, writes, reflects and converses with friends about creativity, memory and mdic.
REVIEW: The new documentary about Nick Cave, 20,000 DAYS ON EARTH can't be called a documentary, exactly; it's simply about Nick Cave. It presents an honest portrait of the man while never resorting to the tropes of an average tell-all. Consequently, it's about the rigors of the creative process, reconciling the past, acceptance of the cards life has dealt you, and the glorious power of music. Yes, you could say it's about all the big things; the joy of it is, it's accessible to not only fans of the musician, but anyone and everyone who has ever felt a twinge of creativity. This is one of the best and most insightful films of the year.
Cave, in case you're unaware, is the Australian singer-songwriter best known as the frontman of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. (Movie buffs might be more familiar with him for his recent scores for LAWLESS, THE PROPOSITION, THE ROAD and THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES He also penned the screenplays for the first two.) With well over 30 years of rocking-out under his belt and over 20 albums with his name on it, to say the man is a veteran of the music scene is to understate the matter. But what makes him tick? What drives forth the creativity that results in so much music, and is it possible that he's tapped out after all this time?
Intriguingly, 20,000 DAYS ON EARTH doesn't necessarily answer those questions, but it still introduces us to its subject in a way that makes us feel we know him when it's all over. It would be easy to make a straightforward documentary about Cave and watch as he recounts his wilder years, hits a few recording sessions, gains some insight into himself. But the film, directed by Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard, doesn't go about business as usual; instead of a talking heads documentary, 20,000 DAYS presents a fictional day in the life of Cave, getting to the heart of him via dramatized writing sessions and conversations. It's a difficult premise to explain, I'll admit. Try to think of it as a drama where everything we're watching is true.
Cave leads us, via voice-over, through a succession of rather commonplace events - he sits at a typewriter and works, he goes to a therapist, he bullshits with friends, etc - but his narration has a gloomy-dreamy quality that lends the events a surreal vibe, while Forsyth and Pollard have filmed things in such a way that they're distinctively cinematic. Only one scene - the therapy session - has any real resemblance to a traditional documentary, as Cave delves into issues such as religion and memory. But even this has been given the veneer of fiction; while what Cave is saying is true, it also feels scripted. The rest is a sort of free-floating narrative. Part poetry, part confession, we feel like we're experiencing one of his songs firsthand, with Cave as the lead character being told where to go by his own music. Difficult to explain indeed.
But even if we're never truly positive what's "real" and what isn't, there's no doubt the film is thoroughly honest about who Cave is. We watch as Cave investigates his own life, through anecdotes with friends and collaborators, and in the most fascinating sequence, Cave and two archivists gather in a cramped file room and go through slides and mementos of his; we see him as a child, as a musically inclined teenager, as a drug-addicted rocker. It's set up as if we're learning, along with Cave, about what led him to where he is now and what makes him who he is. Like a reporter searching for a mystery in grainy pictures, Cave inspects the history of himself and generally seems alright with how things have turned out. (Though his voice often hints at melancholy and regret, Cave generally, surprisingly, appears to be a content man.)
There are other tricks up the movie's sleeve: in a handful of scenes, Cave drives aimlessly around and is joined - seemingly out of thin air - by various people whom he's known at different junctures in his life. Kylie Minogue sits in the backseat and they speak of her initial reaction to him when they first began to collaborate (on the hit song "Where the Wild Roses Grow"). Ray Winstone is there at one point sharing stories from his own profession (he was in the Cave-scripted THE PROPOSITION). He speaks fondly of times past with ex-bandmate Blixa Bargeld.
Of course, we also get to see Cave at work, where the overarching themes of creativity and inspiration are put on display in impressively lengthy recording sessions. Watching him and his band at work, we have a front row seat as all that sincere creativity as it floods out in anguished growls. A voice of pure masculine solemnity, Cave's sessions are transfixing; the film's finale, which sees him go into full-on rockstar mode at a concert, brings everything full circle and we experience what makes him so damn enthralling. The performance appears to have been built up over a lifetime, and the brilliance of 20,000 DAYS ON EARTH is that, we now know, it actually has been.