"What performance is to me is finding a way to tempt the monster to come to the surface."
The above words, quoted by Australian musician and writer Nick Cave, come near the end of 20,000 Days on Earth, but they rather succinctly express the essence of the film and Nick Cave’s artistic career. There is an elusive quality to the wild, emotionally unhinged music of this eccentric artist that feels akin to a dormant monster coming to life upon every encounter. The energy of the performances devours the audience. Directors Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard’s uncategorizable film looks beyond that energy, beyond the surface, to find the monster.
20,000 Days on Earth is a kind of a documentary film, clearly transferring elements of Cave’s life directly to the screen, but its hyper-stylized aesthetic and fictionalized recreations of scenes from his life make the film as hypnotic an experience as listening to the music that inspired it. Covering a short span of time during the recording of Cave’s latest album, 2013’s “Push the Sky Away”, the film begins with a dialogue by the singer that immediately suggests something deeper and more peculiar that the run of the mill music documentary. The disturbing imagery produced with a simple concave mirror in Cave’s bathroom is reminiscent of the best of body horror cinema, reflecting the intensity of his music.
Cave is no stranger to cinema, of course, having composed music for films like Andrew Dominic’s The Assassination of Jesse James and penned the screenplay for John Hillcoat’s Lawless. Co-incidentally, a conversation with a former bandmate is filmed with such heightened stylization that it wouldn’t be completely out of place in a crime film like Dominik’s Killing Them Softly. His cinematic sensibility lends a visual quality to his live shows that elevate it beyond theatricality.
20,000 Days on Earth performs a detailed autopsy of what it is about Nick Cave, the man, which shapes his music. He believes in the importance of memory and the role it plays in the evolution of himself and his music, and the film feels rather nostalgic, particularly in the (fictionalized) sequences where Cave confides in his psychologist about his childhood and the interrupted relationship he enjoyed with his father until the old man’s death when Nick was a teenager.
The network of intricate relationships that the film sets up with regards to Cave’s creative process, from the influence of his childhood to his resignation to the impact that editors and studio personnel have on his work, allows the film to move seamlessly between sequences that are seemingly unrelated without disrupting the harmony of the overall structure – yet another element reflective of the quality of Cave’s songs. There is as much humor –a sugary Kylie Minogue song unexpectedly popping up on the audio player when Cave turns on his car – as there is punching, grim reality – Blixa Bargeld opening up about his departure from ‘Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’. All of this adds up to a rapturous finale, a staggering, endlessly energetic live performance that brings all the contextualized elements behind the music together and leaves the audience with 20,000 goosebumps on their arms. Personal, consistently entertaining and equally illuminating on the creative process, this is the type of film other music documentaries should aspire to.