Of all Australia’s sons and daughters to have found spiritual acceptance in the mother country Nick Cave, star and focus of the fascinating documentary 20,000 Days on Earth, is perhaps the most unexpected.
The musician whose early days in The Birthday Party, a band for which the epithet ‘post-punk’ is wholly unsatisfactory, brought him notoriety, acclaim and a predilection for heroin is now happily ensconced in Brighton with his nuclear family. Aged 50-something, he’s as Anglo-Australian as Barry Humphries, or Kylie Minogue.
And so it is that during the recording of the most recent Bad Seeds album, Push The Sky Away, Cave invited directors Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard along to follow him around for a day — the titular 20,000th of his life.
But this is not an actual day in the life of the actual Nick Cave. It is as much of a construct as one of Cave’s narrative-driven songs. This is meta-documentary, in which ‘Cave’ is followed around living ‘his life’ in a ruse to tease out what is real. The result is an insightful exploration of the creative process.
Cave pays visits to his therapist (Darian Leader), his archivist and has an anecdote-filled, affectionate lunch with his bandmate Warren Ellis, and through these brief encounters Cave allows a view of why and how he works, where he comes from, where he’s been and where he is. Between times he drives around the south coast in the company of his friend Ray Winstone, former bandmate Blixa Bargeld and one-time collaborator Kylie Minogue, each of whom who appear and disappear from the passenger seats as if fragments of memories and with whom he muses on the vagaries of identity, creativity and fame.
If that all sounds a bit Tao of Nick Cave then rest assured it’s all just preparing the ground for the main event, which is of course Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds. Interspersing the flights of fancy soul searching is untrammelled footage of the band creating their album (structurally, this brings to mind Jean-Luc Godard‘s Sympathy for the Devil).
It’s in the studio that the information gleaned through the psychoanalysis, reminiscing and confrontation come together as the band create the music that gives life to Cave’s writing. The Nick Cave of the film turns into the Nick Cave of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and the viewer is left to wonder where the boundaries are drawn between the two, if at all, and whether Nick Cave himself has really made an appearance here.
At one point, amusingly, Cave tells his analyst he once commissioned a statue of himself on a horse that he wanted to gift to the town where he was born. Later, he looks at Kylie Minogue in amazement when she says she worries about being forgotten, and reminds her that waxworks have been made in her image.
Well, 20,000 Days on Earth is Cave’s statue in Warracknabeal, Australia. It is his waxwork. It may not be all there is to show, it may not even be really him, but it stands nonetheless.
With this strange, perplexing and bold document directors Forsyth and Pollard have managed to breath new life into that jaded old format, the rockumentary.