There’s a scene in Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard’s remarkable feature debut in which the hero, a songwriter and musician reflecting on his life and work as he goes about his business on his 20,000th day (that makes him 54, for those accustomed to measuring in years), explains to a friend (or maybe a ghost), a popular character actor close to him in age, that, for a rock star, the idea of artistic self-reinvention isn’t an option. A rock star needs to appear as unchangeable as a god, the hero says, a cartoon you can sketch with a single line. The music itself can be fearsome in its scope and complexity (something that the hero articulates beautifully throughout the film), but the rock star needs to be simple, an icon, a conduit.
One of the things I loved about 20,000 Days on Earth is the way the film’s very existence belies its hero’s philosophy. With its highly creative approach to biography, this film, which we might erroneously call a music documentary, uses artifice to generate a domestic intimacy that starkly contrasts the hero’s carefully sculpted persona. That hero, of course, is Nick Cave (or Nick Cave offering us some version of Nick Cave), in my estimation one of the greatest living songwriters. (Some of those songs: ‘Tupelo,’ ‘The Mercy Seat,’ ‘From Her to Eternity,’ ‘Do You Love Me?,’ ‘Red Right Hand,’ ‘Straight To You,’ ‘Into My Arms,’ ‘Far From Me,’ ‘Fifteen Feet of Pure White Snow,’ ‘Higgs-Boson Blues.’) Along with his band, the Bad Seeds, Cave is also of the most electrifying performers I’ve ever had the pleasure to witness. I’ve been going to Cave concerts all my adult life and he’s never been anything less than godlike, or devil-like, while his songs speak of love and death, fury and fear, desire and madness in ways that are strewn with details taken from lived experience. The best ones feel unmistakably mortal. That frisson between myth and reality is exhilarating and moving and supplies the current that runs through this film.
Once an apparent antisocial maniac with a fiendish double-focus on his career and drug habit (the latter somehow never overwhelming the former), Cave has aged into a studious craftsman with a life regimented by work and family. “At the end of the 20th century I ceased to be a human being,” he states in the film’s deadpan voice-over, by which he means that his every day is a routine: wake, write, eat, write, watch TV. We see Cave traverse Brighton, UK, where he now lives, by car, to go to his office to write; to go the studio to record; to visit his archives; to not-eat with his friend, band-mate and fellow Australian Warren Ellis; to attend sessions with a psychotherapist who looks like a caricature of Michel Foucault. As Cave drives old friends appear and then disappear in the passage seat: actor Ray Winstone, ex-Bad Seed Blixa Bargeld, and singer Kylie Minogue, who once did a duet with Cave (‘Where the Wild Roses Grow’) that briefly inched him and the Seeds into the mainstream. Cave converses candidly with these apparitions—and he often smiles! He wears a suit, resembling a sort of gangster, though with sunglasses on he can look like an emaciated Neil Diamond. He eats pizza and watches Scarface with his boys. He tells an amazing story about sharing a bill with Nina Simone, whose used chewing gum Ellis still owns. He lays down tracks for his most recent record, the hauntingly stripped-down, smoke-like-spooky Push the Sky Away.
Some of this will hold a special appeal for those of us who’ve long been under the spell of Cave and the Seeds, but 20,000 Days on Earth will engage any viewer with an interest in what it means to be an artist with enduring ambitions and a long career. Cave speaks eloquently and humbly about collaboration, memory, fame, formative experience, the essential not-knowingness of creativity, geography-as-destiny, how experience is transformed into art, how things we can’t believe in in our everyday lives become integral to our storytelling. Perhaps out of a desire to match the drama of a great Cave tune, Forsyth and Pollard end the film on a somewhat corny note, but I find this forgivable, because in getting there they’ve done something few films do: they get at truths by telling the right lies, and they peer behind the artist’s mask to examine the lines in his face, without ever losing sight of the fact that neither mask nor face exists without the other’s secret adherence.