“Who knows their own story? It only becomes a story when you tell it.” So claims Nick Cave, the alluring subject at the centre of Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard’s 20,000 Days on Earth (2014). Set around a fictionalised version of Cave’s 20,000th day when he started recording what became last year’s acclaimed Push the Sky Away, the film is both a biography of Cave’s life and a beguiling vision of a musician considering the meaning of his own art. Forsyth and Pollard, whose most famous work to date was re-staging David Bowie’s last performance as Ziggy Stardust, have worked with the Australian singer-songwriter for many years and use their unique access to the man while crafting this unique documentary.
Falling somewhere between a concert film and biography, there’s little that’s conventional in a documentary which twists and turns from rehearsals, to gigs, to a conversation with a psychiatrist and imagined discourses in his car with celebrity friends (including British actor Ray Winstone and pint-sized Australian songstress Kylie Minogue). It’s all narrated by Cave himself – utilising his soulful, brooding but not unfriendly voice – and is set to the haunting, melancholic music of the Bad Seeds. Cave, who is also a screenwriter (he scripted John Hillcoat’s violent western The Proposition), reads out his own poetry, much of it from discarded song lyrics from the pages of notebooks he’s kept for decades, which illustrate Cave’s world from the early eighties in alt-rock band The Birthday Party. He even makes time to visit his own museum.
We’re carried through in impressionistic fashion, sound and vision beautifully in sync with stirring images of the Brighton landscape where Cave lives and gig footage that betters any recent concert movie. Forsyth and Pollard claim that their primary influences are music documentaries like Godard’s Sympathy for the Devil, but with Cave combed-back dark hair, one can’t help but think of Bowie’s film work – perhaps the Cave just seems like another man who fell to Earth. Pollard and Forsyth’s research for 20,000 Days on Earth is the film, so when Cave dips into old photos from his time in Berlin or a stunning picture of his wife Suzie, we feel privileged to be part of that serendipitous moment when our subject finds some joyous, perhaps revelatory part of his past. And yet, these insights into Cave’s past only serve as to illustrate his creative process. When he describes songwriting as chasing that fleeting moment at which “the song is alive,” he’s actually talking about life. We live for the individual fleeting moments of harmony – such as those experienced whilst watching this entrancing, incredibly artful work.
This review of 20,000 Days on Earth was originally published on 14 February as part of our Berlin Film Festival coverage.