By Simon Miraudo
August 15, 2014
Nick Cave, the man, the myth, the legend, reaffirms his status as those last two things, at least, in 20,000 Days on Earth. It’s a convention-busting documentary that follows the inscrutable artist on a fictionalised day in the life; his 20,000th, actually. Well, that’s what directors Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard suggest with their opening credits, and believe me, it’s not the first claim they make over the next 97 minutes that invites scrutiny. The so-called legitimacy of their doco will raise an eyebrow or two (or more, if you have an extra eyebrow to spare) but I’d caution against questioning too much. To worry about falsehoods and mythologising and subjects “performing” in front of the camera – not to mention the way each move by that camera seems elaborately planned – is to miss what’s truly occurring on screen: the impossible magic that is creating art, re-imagined cinematically, and ingeniously.
As the movie tells it, a regular day for Cave begins with him awaking in his Brighton home and writing studiously in a seemingly set-decorated office. Later, he visits a therapist – real-life psychoanalyst Darian Leader – and swings by his archives, to rifle through photos and diary entries and to reminisce about the bad old days. Former colleagues – including Ray Winstone, who starred in the Cave-scripted film The Proposition, and his ‘Where the Wild Roses Grow’ duet companion Kylie Minogue – apparate in his car like friendly Jacob Marleys. Finally, he eats pizza with his sons and watches Scarface. As anyone who’s ever heard his music may have already suspected, the banalities of Nick Cave’s daily grind are far more fascinating than our own.
Forsyth and Pollard insist only the structure of their feature is fictionalised, not the conversations; not even between Cave and Leader, which sees Cave betray the most about his upbringing and perhaps truest self, whoever that might be. The filmmakers’ formal approach suffocates any semblance of spontaneity – genuine as the revelations may be – and yet presents us with a perfect image of an artist and how he creates. Throughout the “day” we see Nick Cave and his Bad Seeds penning, recording and eventually performing live their 2013 record Push the Sky Away. Our thoughts on their music aside, 20,000 Days on Earth convinces us that their herculean struggle to wrestle all those loose ideas and memories and scattered pieces of poetry and prose into nine songs is tantamount to Beethoven putting the final touches on his Fifth Symphony; that is, if Beethoven closed off his masterpiece with a reference to Miley Cyrus floating in a swimming pool, and then used a picture of his naked wife as the cover.
20,000 Days on Earth does not deliver an in-depth exploration or critical examination of its hero. It pitches us a very specific version of Nick Cave and explanation for why exactly he’s important, and it often seems these reasons are ones that have been defined by Cave, and not our directors (who have worked closely with Cave and The Bad Seeds since 2008 on numerous video projects). It ends up playing like Interview with the Vampire, and not merely because of Cave’s nocturnal habits and wraith-like look. It just never feels like he lets the narrative out of his grasp.
That makes it sound like a bad documentary, and I suppose if you were hoping for a myth-shattering exposé, you might be disappointed. Have heart: Nick Cave may not open himself to being critically examined in a movie, but he still makes for a hell of a compelling movie star. A rock and roller who weirdly commits to nine-to-five working hours in a home office, he reveals a self-deprecating sense of humour and plenty of self-awareness. 20,000 Days on Earth manages to retain his enigmatic existence too. The magnitude of his output is enormous: albums, features, books. Their quality, mostly, is similarly immense. Do we really need to know if he dresses up in a suit – or stays in his PJs – before heading to his studio? Maybe to be Nick Cave you need to dress up; to have a costume, and immaculately-constructed legend, and a documentary about you that defies its genre’s very form and risks cries of “fraud” simply to keep the illusion alive. Remember what they said about Batman and Bruce Wayne: Bruce Wayne is the mask. We don’t need a Nick Cave exposé. This semi-fictionalised version is somehow more truthful. 20,000 Days on Earth is mischievous and magnificent, like the man himself.
20,000 Days on Earth arrives in Australian cinemas August 21, 2014.