20,000 Days On Earth

Nick Cave explores his life so far.

In his hymn of rebirth out of dark obsession, ‘Jubilee Street,’ Nick Cave sings, ‘I’m transforming. I’m vibrating. Look at me now.’ That seems an accurate enough description of what the post-punk balladeer does in both his electrifying stage performances and in 20,000 Days On Earth.

Poster art for 20,000 Days On EarthAn influential figure in alternative rock for more than three decades, initially as frontman of the Birthday Party and since 1984 of the Bad Seeds, Nick Cave makes no secret of his distrust of the biographical form. But what co-directors (and frequent Cave collaborators) Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard are doing here is far more impressionistic – a staged but not entirely scripted depiction of Cave’s 20,000th day on Earth. The closest they come to straightforward biography is in the opening three minutes, a dazzling visual and aural assault that assembles images of Cave’s life from birth to the present in a fast-motion montage on multiple screens. As if shaking off a dream of those 19,999 previous days of his life, Cave wakes up in the bedroom of his home in Brighton, England, flooded with purifying seafront light.

A traditional documentary might weave performance interludes like that one into an ordered context of talking heads, clips and career recollections. What makes 20,000 Days On Earth distinctive is that it provides an overview of the man and his art while creating the illusion that this has come together organically – out of poetic ruminations, casual encounters, ghost-like visitations, and good old Freudian psychoanalysis.

For the purposes of this film, the British author Darian Leader serves as Cave’s shrink. He draws him out on subjects ranging from his early childhood in rural Australia, his father, his first sexual experience, his thoughts on love and marriage, his drug use, his religious beliefs, his fascination with the transformative power of performance, and his fears, paramount among them being the loss of memory. These punctuating ‘therapy fragments’ are alternately droll and haunting.

In other scenes we see Cave driving around Brighton in a Jaguar, reflecting on his creative process like a stream-of-consciousness Beat poet. Passengers suddenly appear in the car to engage or challenge him, seemingly conjured out of his mind.

First is Ray Winstone, who starred in John Hillcoat’s film The Proposition, which was scripted by Cave. Next is German musician Blixa Bargeld, the longtime Bad Seeds guitarist who discusses his abrupt departure from the band. Lastly, Kylie Minogue turns up in the back seat for a lovely exchange about the relationship between performer and audience. Cave and Minogue’s 1995 duet ‘Where the Wild Roses Grow,’ gave the Bad Seeds a rare taste of having a mainstream hit, and the affection between these two polar-opposite Australian music giants is utterly disarming.

Forsyth and Pollard find another crafty way to pencil in resonant moments from Cave’s past by having him swing by his archive to sort through documents and photographs sent over by his mother. High school, the early days of the Birthday Party and the Berlin years are all touched upon here. Laughing at a pompous clause for a memorial museum in a will he drew up in 1987, Cave comments, ‘I was always kind of an ostentatious bastard.’

It’s that hint of playful self-mockery that prevents the film from careening into artsy egomania. Cave acknowledges that the rock star thing is an invention that for him happened early in life and is now inescapable. He talks repeatedly about ‘forgetting who you are’ as one of the narcotic attractions of performing, and for much of this film he is very clearly appearing in the role of Nick Cave. But there’s also enough candor here to ground the observations in fundamental truth.

– David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter