Review: 20,000 Days on Earth

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I knew little about what I thought was the Nick Cave documentary called 20,000 Days on Earth before yesterday afternoon. I’m a big fan of his work, so guess I didn’t really need to know more than when and where I could see it once it released. Luckily, The Film Society of Minneapolis/Saint Paul sponsored a showing at St Anthony Main this week so I could.

When the film begins in earnest as the opening credits break, it is immediately clear that 20,000 Days is not of the typical music documentary construct we’ve grown accustomed to. The opening shot is a dramatized sequence of Cave waking up. The cinematography is gorgeous, every shot lit beautifully and orchestrated carefully as he hits snooze, groggily sits up, and heads to the bathroom. Cave narrates over his own daily ritual in his typically understated tone, dropping the titular line as well as a few crumbs of philosophy while we watch him inspect his morning mug. The soliloquy feels orchestrated, yes, but honest too. An idealized reality is what’s being presented here. This is not a candid documentary, but a carefully constructed, intimate biography of Nick Cave, as told by Nick Cave.

And it works SO much better than I ever would have thought, mostly because Cave seems like an honest person, especially when it comes to himself. Early in the film, he talks about his songs being an exaggerated, inaccurate picture of memory, memories he cannibalizes from his daily life as a father and husband as well as his many permutations before now. This film is not unlike those songs. It is not unfiltered reality, but something better, something sublime, because it is more beautiful than reality, but contains reality’s profound truths.

As he leads the viewer through some of the process of writing, recording and performing, Cave’s various tangents on memory, celebrity, and love are arrestingly honest. There’s this really great bit where he’s driving from one place to another, and suddenly he’s having a conversation with someone in his car. The first time it happens it’s Ray Winstone, and they have this great conversation about performance. Later, he’s with Kylie Minogue and they talk about fame and legacy (and wax statues of themselves). In such moments, Cave doesn’t come across as boastful or falsely modest; rather, his unapologetic candor is refreshing. These daydreams feel natural despite the film’s thick veneer, and they are somehow simultaneously tangential and on task.

Cave stops to have lunch with long time collaborator Warren Ellis, sees a psychologist, to whom he talks a lot about his father, and visits his own fictional memory bank, complete with staff of 3 and a full AV department. It is in this archive that Cave delves deepest into his storied history, though only glimpses are offered. Those hoping to hear Cave recount his glory days in The Birthday Party or telling tales of junkie life might be disappointed that these don’t get much attention overall, though it’s not like he ignores his past. He’s just clearly more focused on the present and the future than any of that. He’s chasing down moments, and chasing down the songs they might become.

Throughout 20,000 Days on Earth, Nick Cave talks a LOT about writing, but mostly about writing songs. In my favorite moment, while he’s discussing the evolution of a song from inception to recording, he talks about the most exciting moments of writing, when a song is a sort of wild thing, half formed, more in control of you than you it, before it can be held on to long enough to break. If you’re a fan of him as a composer, you are likely familiar with a few of these he’s managed to record with The Bad Seeds.

20,000 Days on Earth has a few such moments of its own, and the film’s final sequence, which juxtaposes a primal live performance of the excellent “Jubilee Street” from the Sydney Opera House with a video montage of the band performing over the years is a perfect fucking example. I get goosebumps just thinking about the song crescendoing as the editing grows more frantic, Cave hammering out the lyrics “I’m transforming, I’m vibrating, look at me now” over it all. Having yet to see Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds live, this was among my greatest moments as a fan.

The last shot has Cave standing on Brighton Beach, staring at the sea on a summer evening. The camera floats out to sea and Cave recedes into the darkness while he waxes poetic about something or other. Honestly, I was still gobsmacked from the final performance to really take it in. See this!

-Justin Midnight

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