Title: 20,000 Days On Earth
Directors: Iain Forsyth, Jane Pollard
Major Players: Nick Cave, Ray Winstone, Kylie Minogue
Out Of Five: 4
If you’re trying to think of an archetypal Aussie, Nick Cave won’t be at the top of your list. Not that he would he want to be, as he’s not the archetypal anything. But he is a musician and writer – and now the star of a documentary about himself, 20,000 Days On Earth.
But this is Nick Cave we’re talking about, so the last thing you expect is a conventional documentary. And you don’t get one. A better description is to say that it’s a part-fictionalised, cinematically created version of his 20,000th day on earth – and the fact that my description is a touch clumsy shows just how difficult it is to categorise.
The ‘day’ gives Cave an opportunity to explore his creative process – how a song starts out as just a few words on a scrap of paper and ends up as an epic performance. His first 19,999 days flash past in front of our eyes in a series of photographs showing him growing up and all his many and diverse influences. He reflects on where he lives – he’s obsessed by the weather in Brighton – recalls some extraordinary memories, including a recurring one about Nina Simone, and shares in-car ‘conversations’ with the likes of Ray Winstone and Kylie Minogue.
Before I saw the film, my knowledge about Nick Cave was limited to his occasional forays into movie soundtracks – The Proposition, Lawless and The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, plus his cameo role in the film. But, apart from his music along with his band, The Bad Seeds, I suspect I wouldn’t be alone in that. What’s immediately apparent is that he’s an enigma – or at least he appears to be for the purposes of the film. So are we actually finding out more about him, or simply being told what we he wants us to know? And exactly how frank is he really being with his audience? It’s an intriguing proposition, especially as it’s hard at times to distinguish between actual reality and Cave’s version of it. But that’s what makes the film so engaging. You never know where you are with it – or with its subject.
There is one moment which is undoubtedly for real – and it’s a moment of silence. The camera eavesdrops on Cave’s discussions with his shrink (Dr Darian Leader). They cover many aspects of his past but, while he talks about his father’s involvement in his early life, he stops short of discussing his feelings when he died. He was 19 at the time – and that’s all he reveals. Instead, he clams up and goes into retreat.
At home, his study is wonderfully eccentric, full of photographs all over the place, crammed book cases and even more books piled into Old Man Of Hoy towers. There’s no sign of technology. We see him bashing away on his portable manual typewriter, and there’s no mobile phone either: the closest to that is the answering machine on his study phone, where his assistant leaves messages to remind him of his appointments. A four letter word is his usual reaction.
But on stage he’s a different person altogether. The concert footage from Sydney Opera House towards the end of the film is astounding – fascinating and riveting. Cave the performer has genuine charisma on stage and a real connection with his audience. It’s almost as if the music is in second place behind him, but in this particular instance the music is stirring and you wish you’d experienced it at first hand.
The blurring of reality and fiction makes for a compelling watch. Inevitably Cave was involved in writing the screenplay and he’s not above taking the proverbial out of himself. Yet his description of his feelings when he met his wife Suzy for the first time may not be romantic in a hearts and flowers way, but it’s certainly heartfelt and touching. We never actually meet her: we see her in a photograph and her back in bed, but he talks about her frequently, mainly about how tough it must be for her to be married to him. So perhaps we don’t need to physically see her at all.
Ultimately, it’s impossible to categorise 20,000 Days On Earth, just as it’s impossible to categorise Nick Cave himself – even though I fell into the trap of doing just that at the start of this review! It’s an absorbing piece of cinema that appears to give us what we expect – an insight into the man himself. But who knows how much you actually discover? Only one person. Nick Cave.
20,000 Days On Earth is released around the UK on 19 September.