Less a documentary than a collaborative work, 20,000 Days On Earth was co-written by its subject, Nick Cave, alongside directors Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard (visual artists making their feature debut). It’s a graceful slide between fact and fiction, a portrait, a performance, an engaging presentation of perception.
Trailer: 20,000 Days on Earth
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Drama and reality combine in a fictitious 24 hours in the life of musician and international cultural icon Nick Cave.
It begins with a rapid riffle through images of the past, counting down to a putative 20,000th day of existence, in which Cave revisits and reconsiders, talks and reminisces. His creative life – as singer, musician, writer, for more than 40 years – is outlined in that flickering montage. Thereafter, it’s A Day In The Life, a trip through the labyrinth of The Myth.
20,000 Days On Earth is elegant and elusive, artfully arranged and visualised by Forsyth and Pollard, who have directed material for Cave’s recent videos. The film includes voiceovers and casual conversations, plus archival material, presented in what appears to be a physical archive. There are musical numbers: Cave in the studio and on the Sydney Opera House stage, performing Higgs Boson Blues and Jubilee Street. In scenes featuring Cave at the wheel of a car, selected passengers from his past materialise beside him. There’s also a session with an analyst, a meal of eels prepared by a friend, and talk of songwriting, reflections on creativity, and a lyrical declaration of love, via images of beauty.
It looks at once realistic and contrived. You don’t quite believe you are visiting an archive, or watching Cave in his study, let alone seeing him rolling out of his own bed when the alarm rings – yet, whatever the provenance of these scenes (and it turns out that all are in staged locations) they feel as if they contain a grain of truth, a depiction of the self for which Cave is prepared to take responsibility.
There’s not much in the way of context – it’s assumed that you know who the other people are, or what their relationship with Cave is. Warren Ellis, a continuing collaborator who has played with him in the Bad Seeds and beyond, is a strong presence, whether he’s sharing in recollections, serving up eels, accompanying Cave in the studio or teasing him about a song that reminds him of a Lionel Richie number.
Ellis is not an apparition like the passengers in Nick’s car, who come from earlier collaborations. Ray Winstone (star of The Proposition, written by Cave) talks about fame, and about playing Henry VIII and thinking that he really is the king. Kylie Minogue – oddly enough, there’s plenty of background detail about how they met, and why – recalls that she speed-read his biography before their first encounter. Blixa Bargeld speaks about why he suddenly quit the Bad Seeds (which as a revelation is not up to much).
There are invoked figures, too. Cave can sort through photos, or point to an image projected onto a wall, and fleetingly recall his late bandmates, Rowland S. Howard and Tracy Pew. Mick Harvey, his collaborator over decades, is briefly referred to this way.
And then there’s the almost tangible presence of Nina Simone, summoned up by both Cave and Ellis, who both recall her with wonder, amusement and a certain amount of fear. She represents a kind of transcendence: in their minds, she’s a figure who stared down the audience as if she hated them, yet made something remarkable out of being on stage. Live performance, says Cave, is what he lives for, and Simone exemplifies its mysterious alchemy.
Cave has a session with Darian Leader, psychoanalyst and best-selling author (whose titles include Why Do Women Write More Letters Than They Post?), who asks Cave about his childhood. In much of what is presented of these conversations, the focus falls on the father who died when Cave was 19.
Cave tells Leader that what scares him most is losing his memory, and in many ways, this capacity feels like the subject of the film. 20,000 Days On Earth is an example of memory at work and at play, in a very particular way: a demonstration of its rich, teasing, flawed and mythologising power.
20,000 Days On Earth opens on August 21.