Directed by: Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard.
Written by: Nick Cave & Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard.
Featuring: Nick Cave, Susie Bick, Warren Ellis, Darian Leader, Ray Winstone, Blixa Bargeld, Kylie Minogue, Arthur Cave, Earl Cave, Thomas Wydler, Martyn Casey, Conway Savage, Jim Sclavunos, Barry Adamson, George Vjestica.
There are some people who you cannot do justice to in a standard issue documentary. Nick Cave is certainly one of those people, so director’s Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard do not attempt to make one in 20,000 Days on Earth. Instead, they collaborate with Cave himself – and allow him in many ways to take the lead, and “write” the documentary, and dictate the directions that the film is going to go. Like an increasing number of documentaries, 20,000 Days on Earth takes on somewhere between fact and fiction – many of the scenes are staged, but that doesn’t make them any less real. I don’t think we ever really get to know the “real” Nick Cave in the film – that appears to be something that Cave is unwilling to share with the filmmakers or his fans. What emerges however is a portrait of the artist that Cave is at work.
To call the film strange would be an understatement. The film has many scenes of Cave driving alone in his car – narrating his life in cryptic, hard-boiled monologue – and then gives way to a conversation as various people “appear” in the car with him – from actor Ray Winstone (who starred in the Cave-scripted film, The Proposition) to collaborator Kylie Minogue to Cave’s wife, Susie. The people give some insight into both Cave, and their own lives – or at times the artistic process itself. There are also scenes of Cave talking to Darian Leader – a psychologist (I think), who gets Cave to talk about his father, or his earliest sexual experiences, or other such subjects much loved by biographers – although Cave’s answers only reveal precisely what he wants to be revealed.
There are also scenes of Cave at work on his latest album – often alongside Warren Ellis, and the other Bad Seeds. These scenes, which show Cave at work, not performing for an audience (which he talks about a lot) are probably the least guarded Cave is in the entire movie. He’s not putting on acting for the camera or an audience – and often he’s in a room by himself, so the band itself isn’t there. This is Cave as unguarded and natural as he is willing to show to the camera – and even then we are left with little more than his cryptic lyrics, which are often haunting, dark, violent and contradictory to get inside who Cave is.
That is a question that the movie cannot answer – and never really attempts to. Cave himself admits he doesn’t always know what his songs are about – they do not become clear to him until years later – and whether or not that’s self-aggrandizement on Cave’s part, it also appears to be true in his case.
It’s always been odd to me that almost all movies – documentary or otherwise – about someone famous usually follow the same basic outline and format. Few filmmakers seem willing (or able) to give their subject the treatment they deserve. Todd Haynes did that in his Bob Dylan movie, I’m Not There, which provided us with many different Bob Dylan’s, and not solved the essential enigma that he is. Gus Van Sant did that in Last Days, about Kurt Cobain (under a different name) which was basically just the portrait of a junkie who has no idea what he’s doing in his haunting final days. And Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard do that in 20,000 Days on Earth. Do I have any more idea of who Nick Cave is after seeing the movie than I did before? Not really. But I think that’s the way Cave wants it.