20,000 Days on Earth, British artists Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard’s film about songwriter and performer Nick Cave, is an outstanding example of its genre. This comes as something of a relief, since big screen treatments of popular music frequently prove to be disappointingly anodyne, often working out like fan-pleasing DVD extras put through a projector. 20,000 Days on Earth, though, is the complete opposite – it is poetic, insightful and exquisite cinema.
Originally from Australia but now resident in Brighton, Cave has accumulated a body of work over more than 3 decades that is unparalleled in modern music. It is by turns scabrous and beautiful, sombre and humorous, tender and ravishing, yet always beguiling, always fascinating. Soon after the collapse in 1983 of his former band, the vile post-punks The Birthday Party, he put together his backing band the Bad Seeds. They have (with impressive fluidity of personnel) been with him pretty much ever since. The early Bad Seeds releases sound like nothing else, then or now. Records like From Her to Eternity (1984) and Tender Prey (1988) are still impressively raucous, with tracks like ‘The Mercy Seat’ exhibiting a sense of queasy dread and a twisted gallows-humour all their own.
The band’s growing success led to the molasses-black (not to mention grimly amusing) Murder Ballads (1996), which contains live favourites that remain to this day, such as the violently comic ‘Stagger Lee’. It will, perhaps, be best remembered for his collaboration with fellow Aussie Kylie Minogue on ‘Where the Wild Roses Grow’. The meeting of the crow-like Cave and pop’s leading damsel in this thorny ballad of obsession and death was an irresistible, mind-bending proposition and it duly crept up billboards around the world.
Chart success, though, is a fleeting mistress, although Cave has been busy pretty much ever since and now has a sustained reputation as one of popular music’s elder statesmen. This is whether crooning on the heartbreaker The Boatman’s Call (1997), touring with his midlife-crisis ramshackle band Grinderman, or pushing boundaries of taste still-further with novels such as The Death of Bunny Munro (2009). His music is, as expected, still as captivating as ever. Push the Sky Away was only released last year, but it already feels as if it has been in his canon for the past twenty.
In any event, he has rarely, if ever, struck a false note and so he has been careful not about to blot his copybook now with an underwhelming feature film (he has a co-writing credit here). Forsyth and Pollard had done some music videos with Cave before and originally intended for this to be a short feature, following the recording of Push the Sky Away in France. However, the cameras kept rolling after the final take and pretty soon an idea emerged, that of a “day-in-the-life” construct, from dawn till dusk, drawing on different aspects of his life both past and present, as his 57th birthday approached.
The results are strange, candid and hilarious. Upon waking on his 20,000th day, the film quickly moves towards rigorous self-examination, whether this is through psychoanalysis or looking through photos in an old warehouse. The revelations (Biblical pun very much intended) of his childhood and growing up, and how these relate to his present self, are an unexpected gift, especially given how much of a closed book he can often come across in interviews. It is also in such refreshing contrast to the usual stuff from musician bores, prattling on about sexual exploits and saving the world.
Despite often cutting very much a lone figure, the film’s most revealing and enjoyable moments are when Cave is in collaboration with his compadres, reacting and sounding off them, therefore exposing other aspects of himself. Some taxi-banter with Ray Winstone will surely have them rolling in the aisles (I truly hope a deleted scene in which they discuss fish and chips makes it onto an “extras” disc). And, of course, we are graced with the presence of Ms Minogue herself, with the two of them reflecting warmly about stunning the charts all those years ago. However, the show-stealer has to be his lunchtime repartee with Bad Seed Warren Ellis, who has a side-splitting anecdote about Nina Simone that is worth the admission price alone.
The making of Push the Sky Away footage is saved from indulgence by Forsyth and Pollard cleverly showing the transition of the songs’ raw beginnings culminating in a live performance in the evening. This show, like everything else on display here, is magnificently arranged.
And so ends Mr Cave’s 20,000th day, in suitably strident and poetical fashion. Frankly, I could have sat through 20,000 more.
20,000 Days on Earth is showing at Plymouth Arts Centre from 24 – 26 Oct 2014
Review by Ieuan Jones
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