This film about the Australian musician and writer Nick Cave by Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard plays around with the documentary format, and although it competed as a documentary at Sundance earlier this year there are times when it is and times when it is anything but. Purportedly detailing a typical 24 hours in the artist’s life – his 20,000th, as the title states – 20,000 Days On Earth is at times very clearly scripted, with a number of fictitious and genuine events taking place in and around Cave’s adopted town of Brighton during the course of the day. As such it brings to mind Casey Affleck’s ramshackle portrait of Joaquin Phoenix, I’m Still Here, though Forsyth and Pollard’s film is far more controlled and focused than that baffling oddity.
Fans of Cave and his band The Bad Seeds – I am one myself – will find much to enjoy here, scripted or not. Cave is a fascinating individual, a man who convinces whether he is on stage playing the part of a sleazy, snake-hipped rocker, a possessed bluesman, a purveyor of timeless, beautiful love songs, a serial killer or a witty and entertaining absurdist. He apparently retained final cut on this film, which suggests that those looking for a warts-and-all exposition will be disappointed, but he is at times refreshingly open about his craft and his own personality, and there is a sense that some of his many layers are peeled back before the cameras. At other moments, though, he appears to be egotistical and aloof; perhaps this is a well-rounded portrait.
The film includes straight-up rockumentary staples such as footage of rehearsals and recording sessions (for the recent studio album Push The Sky Away), as well as glimpses of a concert as Cave ends his 20,000th day with a typically-ferocious live show. We also see the singer at home briefly with his wife in the morning, and children in the evening (a nice scene where they watch Scarface together and join in for a rapturous ‘Say hello to my little friend’), while there are interesting conversations conducted in a car with three of his collaborators: actor Ray Winstone (who appeared in The Proposition, which Cave wrote), ex-Bad Seed Blixa Bargeld and Kylie Minogue, who famously played Nancy to Cave’s Lee on the mid-90s hit Where The Wild Roses Grow. As Cave chauffeurs the unlikely trio around a gloomy, overcast Brighton it’s hard not to think of Jim Jarmusch’s ode to taxi drivers Night On Earth, or even his more recent Coffee And Cigarettes, which made fine use of rock stars’ abilities to portray exaggerated versions of themselves.
At other times Cave meets with archivists, visits a therapist and checks in at the house of his bandmate Warren Ellis, who delivers a magnificent anecdote about Nina Simone to his distracted fellow countryman over lunch. The scenarios may not sound particularly interesting, yet whether he’s reading his own lines as narrator, mocking his younger self when revealing the contents of a last will and testament that was written in the 1980s or discussing the writing process, Cave is an engaging, intense and magnetic figure. Does he let his guard down here? Yes and no; he plays the raconteur during his therapy session, a sequence which feels scripted, and at times it seems as though the conversation could just as easily be held with a music journalist, but he is still quite open when discussing his childhood and is visibly upset when he talks about his deceased father.
There’s no detailed, step-by-step breakdown of Cave’s career to date here, but by incorporating glimpses of his upbringing in Australia, his early years as a post-punk rocker, a period of drug addiction and the later success of The Bad Seeds, a broad picture is eventually painted. Collaborators and family members play second fiddle throughout, and some key colleagues through the years like Barry Adamson and Mick Harvey barely get a mention, but the conceit of the film demands such a narrow focus.
There are some very nice touches in the film; I smirked when Cave gets into his car and switches off Kylie’s Can’t Get You Out Of My Head with a nonchalance that may even be covering-up irritation, while the final, beautiful shot of the singer standing proudly / defiantly on Brighton seafront makes the town look like his own personal, giant soundstage. Understandably 20,000 Days On Earth will appeal more to those who are already fans of Cave’s writing, or music, or even his acting (the man is the very definition of the word ‘polymath’), but in the way that it blends both fiction and reality into the documentary format it’s an intriguing work that should interest plenty of people who have never heard of the Australian before. The discussions about the artistic process are certainly interesting to listen to, but some may find the whole affair a little self-indulgent.
Directed by: Iain Forsyth, Jane Pollard
Written by: Iain Forsyth, Jane Pollard, Nick Cave
Starring: Nick Cave, Ray Winstone, Kylie Minogue, Warren Ellis, Blixa Bargeld
Running Time: 97 minutes