20,000 DAYS ON EARTH. Nick Cave, Kylie Minogue, Ray Winstone, Blixa Bargeld, Warren Ellis, The Bad Seeds. Directed by Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard. 95 minutes. Rated MA15+.
’20,000 Days on Earth’ follows artist Nick Cave over the course of a fictitious day during the recording of his band’s album ‘Push the Sky Away’. Hypnotic and surreal, this pseudo-documentary offers frank and beguiling insights into the artistic process, and explores the unique mind of one of Australia’s most long-lived musicians.
The film opens as it follows the subject’s morning routine, waking at home in Brighton, England, before watching him work away continuously at his typewriter. Cave narrates his life and the regime he follows to craft his musical output, and his words have an element of poetry about them. He attends a session with his psychologist, where his youth and relationships with his father and women are discussed. Stories of touring and playing live stand out, particularly one about supporting the late Nina Simone, who he says physically transformed on stage. He talks about his atheism, and how his addiction to drugs was too closely tied to religion for him to let just one go. Dark themes are uncovered almost from the get go, and Cave is startlingly frank, making him a captivating subject. These explorations (and some occasional nudity) may remove the film from the grasp of some viewers, however it offers deep contemplation for lovers of music, art and cinema.
The directors (who co-wrote the script with Cave), British artists Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard, have crafted a swell blend of ‘imagination and reality’, the intersection of which Cave posits is where he dwells. Driving between appointments, celebrities seemingly materialise in his Jaguar with him where they converse before dissolving again. Ray Winstone, Kylie Minogue and Cave’s former bandmate Blixa Bargeld all take a turn in this spectral visitation, and all impress in their brief appearances. The documentary observes the recording of some of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ songs in an unconventional studio. Though I was unfamiliar with most of their output prior to viewing the film, several of the songs connected with me, and Cave’s intensity in recording along is a sight to behold. Cave and his bandmate Warren Ellis composed additional original music for the film, and it pulses absorbingly beneath the image.
Cave visits Ellis at home for a shared meal before heading to the Nick Cave Archive (imagined away from its home in Melbourne to Brighton) to discuss some of its memorabilia. The footage is skilfully pieced together by editor Jonathan Amos, who rightly received an award for his work at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. It has an almost entrancing progression through the recordings and conversations, and the concert footage flashbacks intertwined with their performance of ‘Jubilee Street’ at the Sydney Opera House are a powerful triumph, brilliantly matching the lyrics about transformation.
Cinematographer Erik Wilson creates artful framing throughout, and mixes obsessive close-ups into much of the footage to convey Cave’s investment in his work. The feverish recording sessions and compelling interviews enjoy great coverage from Wilson, and allow Amos’ editing to let loose.
As both a portrait of an artist and a fascinating pseudo-documentary, ’20,000 Days on Earth’ succeeds on many levels.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out August 21.