20,000 Days on Earth Movie Review

Featuring: Nick Cave, Warren Ellis, Ray Winstone, Blixa Bargeld, Kylie Minogue
Directors: Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard
Movie website: www.20000daysonearth.com/
Australian release date: Thursday 21 Aug 2014

Reviewer: rolanstein
Verdict: An inspired, stylistically perfect portrait of one of rock’s most enigmatic and mercurial figures.

This highly original and inspired portrait of one of rock’s most enigmatic figures, Nick Cave, resists categorisation. ‘Fictionalised documentary’, perhaps? Which means…?

Start with the title and the concept underlying it: the film supposedly spans 24 hours in Cave’s life, on his 20000th day on earth. This measure of time is stunningly represented in the opening montage, close to strobe speed, of still and moving images of Cave in chronological order, starting with childhood and early teens, whirring through his early years on stage with The Boys Next Door and The Birthday Party, to the Bad Seeds and beyond. Accompanying this visual summary of his life to date is a shrieking, grinding soundscape of feedback, static and general electronic mayhem that has Cave’s musical trademark all over it. Abruptly, as the images catch up with the present they stop and there is silence. Cave is in bed. The alarm goes off. He gets up, naked – no, wearing black jeans, ferchrissake! Moves to the window, hangs in its frame. Still teenage thin, a veritable whippet. And we’re underway at the dawn of his 20000th day (in the course of the film it emerges that Cave is acutely aware of the value of time, the driving force behind his obsessive work ethic).

It is soon clear that the camera crew is not simply following him around recording his every moment. The day-in-the-life pretense is but a conceit, a narrative structure around which the film is built. Cave narrates his own story in intermittent voiceover that is lyrical and artful, thought out and honed, like a work of fiction, yet earnest and at times moving – an autobiographical excursion into the real by a guy digging deep, yet still in artistic guise and exercising poetic power.

The narration bridges and augments a series of scenes that are presented as grabs from Cave’s everyday life, including a fascinating and illuminating session with his psychiatrist that is funny and poignant in turn. He has lunch with ex-pat friend, musical colleague and laconic but thoroughly entertaining raconteur Warren Ellis (Bad Seeds, Grinderman, Dirty Three). Their reminiscences over a Nina Simone concert are one of the highlights of the film. Of course, we get a look at Cave in his book-strewn writing environment, and during a recording session (working on his 2013 album Push The Sky Away). His family life is out of bounds, except for a short scene in which he and his twin boys are shown watching a DVD on a lounge sofa and sharing pizza (Nick the family man!).

This day-in-the-life material is interspersed with archival and concert footage, and sequences in which Cave drives while conversing with passengers who have figured in his personal and musical life, including Bad Seeds collaborator Blixa Bargeld, friend and actor Ray Winstone and Kylie Minogue. The combined effect is to give a sense of his daily routines, his creative modus operandi, and the people in his life, past and present, who have shaped him, or with whom he shares common ground.

Bit by bit, the fragments that make up the movie assemble themselves into a distinctive and well-constructed but still elusive portrait. It is as if the filmmakers have tuned into Cave’s mercurial nature and bought into his mystique, clearly exposing facets of his personality and creative processes yet coming at them from slightly oblique angles.

Indeed, the driving sequences might well be read metaphorically – is it Cave who is steering the film, or the filmmakers? Whatever the answer, the work is brilliantly controlled and perfectly stylistically reflective of its subject, his art, and the creative processes and influences that go into producing it.
While the focus is on Cave the artist and person rather than his music per se, fans will delight in some superb recent concert footage from the Sydney Opera House, the band being backed by a symphony orchestra and school choir. Cave is in fine form, and Warren Ellis shreds on violin, pulling off an electrifying solo as Jubilee Street from Push The Sky Away builds to a thrilling climax.

Regardless of your position on Nick Cave and his music, filmmakers Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard have created something special here that deviates from – in fact, transcends – the documentary form. In so doing, they leave the viewer with the sense of getting about as close to the spirit of this intriguing and shape-shifting artist, and the man behind pulling the strings, as is possible through the lens of a camera.

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