Going into 20,000 Days on Earth, I knew fairly little about Nick Cave. I knew he was a musician, but hadn’t listened to his music, and I knew he written a few screenplays, but had only seen one of the resultant films (the underwhelming Lawless–though his rejected Gladiator 2 script sounds awesomely ridiculous). So I might have been justified in wondering if this film would leave I and all other Cave neophytes bewildered.
Thankfully, the film doesn’t confuse, but highlights an amiable, thoughtful, and undeniably talented artist in suitably unusual fashion: one minute philosophizing with Kylie Minogue, the next eating pizza and watching Scarface with his young sons. While it arguably lacks a strong thesis and is not without its slow spots, 20,000 Days on Earth is a rather splendid film on the whole.
The film ostensibly covers Cave’s 20,000th day on Earth¹, during which he records music with his band The Bad Seeds, is interviewed about his creative process and influences, looks over the evidence of his past (namely a big box of old photos and clippings), and muses about his ideas and goals, alone and with the help of Kylie Minogue, Ray Winstone, and his long-term collaborator, Warren Ellis.
Having never reviewed a documentary at this length before (I saw the Afghan War documentary Korengal over the summer but didn’t write it up), I’m not sure where to begin–though, to be fair, 20,000 Days on Earth is not quite your typical documentary. Its thesis could be boiled down to the quote which I subtitled the poster with: “I love the feeling of a song before you understand it.” Cave repeatedly talks about how he wants to achieve a kind of metaphorical high with his music, to say figuratively what cannot be said literally.
One can debate how successful he is in doing so; here are the first three stanzas “Higgs Boson Blues”, a song from the album Push the Sky Away which he records on-camera:
Can’t remember anything at all
Flame trees line the streets
Can’t remember anything at all
But I’m driving my car down to Geneva
I’ve been sitting in my basement patio
Aye, it was hot
Up above, girls walk past, the roses all in bloom
Have you ever heard about the Higgs Boson blues
I’m goin’ down to Geneva baby, gonna teach it to you
Who cares, who cares what the future brings?
Black road long and I drove and drove
I came upon a crossroad
The night was hot and black
I see Robert Johnson,
With a ten dollar guitar strapped to his back,
Lookin’ for a tune (Source)
And here’s the whole song if you want to get a taste of Cave’s style:
Does Cave succeed at evoking a poetic mood, at eliciting a feeling without spelling it out? Or is it just pretentious nonsense? Personally, I quite enjoy his music–you can quote me as saying he’s somewhere between Elvis and Tom Waits. He’s a very unique voice in contemporary music, and though he acknowledges his comparatively small audience (noting that his duet with Minogue was for many their only exposure to his style), that audience is quite loyal.
And what makes the film so good is that it justifies that loyalty. Witness the concert footage, where Cave literally reaches into the audiences, sings directly to the audience, even to a single person, with what might fairly be called a warm bedside manner. Witness Cave break down his influences and ideas, reaching into his past to identify what shaped him as a man, with humor, with candor, and with a welcome lack of pretension–or such an abundance of likability that it hardly seems like it. And that’s before you even factor in the music.
Apparently Cave and Ellis wrote an original score for the film. I’m not sure which parts of the soundtrack were original and which were extant compositions, but the non-vocal music is quite good, adding to the cerebral, almost mystical nature of the film.
Directors Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard vary up the scene such that, a few dry spots (though to be fair, I caught a late screening, so I may have been fatigued) aside, the film remains fresh and consistently engaging. A few choices seem questionable (during the explicit interview segments, too often the camera cuts to the interviewer (whose identity I cannot ascertain), who is, to put it plainly, a less compelling subject than Cave. Otherwise, it’s a pretty fine film all around.
Erik Wilson’s cinematography is intimate when it needs to be and rather bold and abstract when the occasion demands (like the lengthy pull-back shot which ends the film). The editing is strong; the sound mixing, obviously vital to any film involving music, can hardly be faulted.
I should note that, while Cave is never racist as such, the odd lyric or offhand remark may raise an eyebrow (the lyric “Well here comes Lucifer/With his canon law/And a hundred black babies runnin’ from his genocidal jaw” is a prime example”).
This has been my shortest review in some time, because the documentary is such an odd thing to critique. You can criticize a poor performance or a poorly character, but you can judge a real person, a human life, by such a metric? I think it would be best to say that 20,000 Days on Earth is an ideal portrait of Nick Cave because its style so completely matches his style. It is neither a biography nor a concert film, simply a portrait. And an excellent one at that.
¹For fun, I crunched the numbers, and I must admit, the title is not necessarily accurate. 20,000 days works out to, factoring in the number of leap years since Cave was born on September 22, 1957, 54 years, 276 days–which would put Cave’s 20,000th day, if my calculations are correct, as June 24th, 2012. However, the film might have been shot at that time, since it premiered at Sundance in January, 2014, making a summer 2012 production entirely possible. Or it’s just a nice round number and I’m being a nitpicking douchebag. (For what it’s worth, today–October 8, 2014–is Cave’s 20,835th day on Earth.