For better or worse, I’ve always placed Nick Cave within my “men in black” subgenre. Defining characteristics of these musicians include distinctive baritones, poetic lyrics, sunglasses, cool detachment, interesting hair and – of course – black clothing. Other members include Roy Orbison, Scott Walker, The Doors, Echo & the Bunnymen, The Stranglers, The Sisters of Mercy, The Jesus and Mary Chain, The Tindersticks, and the genre godfather – Johnny Cash. Troubled troubadours, drugs, fisticuffs, rivalries, commercial suicide and near self-destruction are unfortunate traits of this motley crew. If you’re not a fan, you may consider these artists inaccessible, pretentious, self- indulgent doom-mongers. What’s surprising about 20,000 Days On Earth is that directors Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard have managed to peel back layer after layer of Nick Cave’s dark, mysterious facade to reveal an open, honest, sympathetic, and refreshingly down-to-Earth artist. Even more surprising is the way they go about it.
The press kit heralds their “inventive, lyrical ode to creativity and an intimate examination of the artistic process of musician and cultural icon Nick Cave” fusing “drama and documentary, weaving a staged day in Cave’s life with never-before-seen verité observation of his creative cycle.” This threatens pretension à la Jean Luc Godard’s misguided Sympathy For The Devil. However, the film remains remarkably accessible despite these lofty claims. More surprising still, Cave manages to make Brighton seem cool – by his presence alone.
The opening scene of Cave awakening next to his wife may look familiar; it’s shot in the same bedroom gracing the cover of his most recent release – the eerie, atmospheric Push The Sky Away (the distinctive blinds give it away). The film captures several souls who have walked the line with Cave. While she is not interviewed, Cave’s wife Susie Bick is very much present. She appeared nude on the striking black and white cover of Push The Sky Away. Perhaps Cave marrying a model is the one rock and roll cliché we can allow this otherwise elusive, unpredictable man; although Bick’s past as the cover model on The Damned’s LP Phantasmagoria suggests that she was always the perfect match for Cave. Cave’s sons also appear briefly (enjoying pizza and a film with their gothfather) alongside regular collaborator Warren Ellis; actor and friend Ray Winstone; and one-time collaborator Kylie Minogue, who could use more exposure. Some of these voices from the past join Cave on dream-like drives through Brighton. Surprising omissions from the world of international cinema include Cave fan Wim Wenders (e.g. Wings of Desire) and regular Cave collaborator John Hillcoat (stretching from 1988’s Ghosts… of the Civil Dead to 2012’s Lawless); but this breezy film is already packed with more than enough character detail. Still, would have been great to revisit Cave’s thoughts on his scene-stealing turn as Freak Storm in Johnny Suede – the directorial debut of Tom DiCillo and one of Brad Pitt’s early starring roles.
Avoiding the obvious and predictable, Forsyth and Pollard take us on a journey through Cave’s memories via mementos from his personal archive – almost Kubrick-like in its scope and attention to detail. One of the film’s best moments is Cave’s droll, matter-of-fact account of a ‘transformative’ Nina Simone performance. Placed on the mercy seat, Cave opens up to a psychoanalyst as he discusses how his early years continue to inform his work. Here 20,000 Days dives 20,000 leagues into Cave’s subconscious. Expecting a dark descent into a swirling, solipsistic maelstrom of madness and regret? Think again. On this occasion, Cave is relaxed, genial, and forthright. Of course, in addition to the Cave exploring, 20,000 Days On Earth contains electrifying performances and behind-the-scenes studio footage that will delight diehard fans of both Nick Cave and Lionel Richie.
The degree of intimacy throughout 20,000 Days On Earth would not have been possible with a more mainstream artist. Cave is the perfect subject – popular enough to be interesting, yet mysterious enough to warrant further exploration. The film’s unique approach and sensitivity to its subject may be due to the man and woman directorial team, offering us a more balanced view of Cave. Of course, it also helps that Forsyth and Pollard worked with Cave in the past.
Ultimately, the mark of a great music documentary is what you do when the film ends. If you start rummaging through old vinyl, CDs, or digital files to satisfy a certain curiosity – then it worked. 20,000 Days on Earth made me crave some Cave. Thus, as I listen to Push The Sky Away, I recall that mesmerizing final image of Nick Cave, alone on the darkened Brighton shoreline. The camera gently floats away, leaving Cave behind. Lucky for us, he missed the boatman’s call. Brighton remains cool.