20,000 Days on Earth

August 23, 2014
Nick Cave in '20,000 Days on Earth' (2014)
Nick Cave in '20,000 Days on Earth' (2014)

Perhaps the strangest fact one discovers about rock star, Nick Cave, in the documentary, 20,000 Days on Earth, is that he spends most of his time doing a good impersonation of a middle class accountant. It never seemed likely when I stood in the audience of those Birthday Party gigs in Sydney, where Cave would launch himself headlong into the audience in emulation of Iggy Pop.

It looked as if Cave was set on the path of self-destruction that has claimed so many musicians in their mid to late 20s. But despite his bouts of heroine addiction and some grim months in old Berlin, Cave has emerged as a model of middle-aged stability. His former band members, Rowland S. Howard and Tracy Pew are gone, but Cave has moulded himself into a versatile writer and musician. At the age of 56, he looks like someone who will be around for the long haul, like Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen.

Iain Forsythe and Jan Pollard, better known as conceptual artists, have made a film that is less of a documentary than a “portrait”. It is a totally different proposition to Autoluminescent, Richard Lowenstein’s 2011 documentary on Rowland S. Howard. Released after Howard’s death, that was a more conventional film, based around talking heads and archival footage.

20,000 Days on Earth rushes through the biographical material with indecent haste, in order to concentrate on Cave’s life today. The camera follows him around his comfortable house in the British resort town of Brighton, and into his car. Each time Cave gets behind the steering wheel, he will have a dialogue with some friend or colleague, be it Blixa Bargeld, former guitarist with his band, the Bad Seeds; Kylie Minogue, with whom he once sang a Gothic duet; or Ray Winstone, who starred in the film The Proposition (2005), that Cave scripted. The dialogues, which have the quality of a dream or a scene from a film noir, are a way of turning ordinary interviews into pieces of theatre.

There are also chats with long-time collaborator, Warren Ellis, where they discuss gigs by Jerry Lee Lewis and Nina Simone. The most innovative part of the film is a dialogue with psychoanalyst, Darian Leader, who gets Cave to reminisce about his childhood and early life.

Forsythe and Pollard are so pleased with this couch session they let it go on a little too long. Whatever the virtues of psychoanalysis, there’s no doubt that it’s more interesting for the subject than for an audience.

Various curious facts are dredged up from the singer’s past, but it’s the sheer normality of Cave’s life that stays with one. Despite his preoccupation with the most extreme scenarios – the B movie horror stories, murder ballads, angst-ridden songs about lust, pride, revenge and hatred – he is a home-body. Towards the end of the film we find him sitting on the couch with his twin sons, both in school uniform, eating pizza and watching TV.

Listening to Cave’s music, if one had to imagine any place in the world where he might be living, Brighton would not figure on the list. The swamps of Louisiana or a castle in Transylvania seem more likely options.

This unusual documentary is a study in compartmentalisation – the ability to separate one’s life and art. The message is that a true artist – and Cave deserves this title – is able to harness the power of his imagination without disturbing the stable framework of daily life. In time, that framework becomes a necessary support for the wildest flights of fantasy.

20,000 Days on Earth
Directed by Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard
Written by Nick Cave, Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard
Starring Nick Cave, Warren Ellis, Blixa Bargeld, Kylie Minogue, Ray Winstone
UK, rated MA 15+, 97 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 23rd August, 2014.