Nick Cave, over a decades-spanning career, has somehow managed to never demystify his image. He was the wild front-man of The Birthday Party; the enigmatic, death-obsessed junkie heard on 80s Bad Seeds records; and, on his most recent work, the philosophical balladeer, whose minimal songs build into narratives as mordant and poetic as anything he’s done in the past. In documenting the making of last year’s Push the Sky Away (billed as 24 hours), Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard decided to bring this notoriously elusive musician out of the shadows…partially. The Nick Cave in their film, though candid about his personal life and relationships, is really another construct–a carefully calibrated, affecting piece of performance art that both reinforces and dispels much of the speculation surrounding Cave and his work. And, indeed, part of the appeal in 20,000 Days on Earth is this intimate play between genuine interactions and emotional artifice.
Ignoring constrictions to “realism” allows Forysth and Pollard to explore the aesthetic potential of this set-up. Opening with a thrilling credits sequence, in which lines of television screens play clips charting the history of Cave’s career while a timer speeds upwards to 20,000, the film-making only increases in ambition. The directing-team’s willingness to play with the documentary format is most evident in Cave’s scripted therapy sessions, where the singer goes into recounts of his childhood before a balding psychoanalyst. It’s a risky, Freudian flourish that ends up paying off in much deeper ways than expected. There are also car confessionals, where Cave communicates with people from his past while driving, including Ray Winstone (The Proposition) and Kylie Monique (“Where the Wild Roses Grow”). Many already-devoted fans, who are at least nominally familiar with his life, will be able to confirm much of what he says as fact, such as his long addiction to heroin, his early band’s violent reputation, and his father’s untimely death. The singer, who co-wrote the script along with the two directors, often seems split between genial and jaded, spewing hardboiled thoughts about the writing process (“cannibalizing” his experiences) in the beginning of the film and watching Scarface on the couch with his kids by the end. Nestled in between all of these revealing sequences are intimate studio rehearsals with the Bad Seeds (the most stunning of which is their sparse, 7-minute penultimate track Higgs Boson Blues).
Anyone who has seen Nick Cave live can attest to his formidable stage presence—a light casting the singer’s creeping shadow is always projected onto the wall while he preaches cryptic lyrics to an eager audience. It is, to say the least, a theatrical experience. It may come as a surprise, then, to see the singer acting so, well, human. “My number one fear is losing my memory,” Cave tells his therapist, which he explains as the source of his identity and creativity. His performance isn’t necessarily about humility; it’s more a reflection on how central personal histories can be to an artist and their output.
20,000 Days on Earth opens in Toronto on Friday, September 26th.