20,000 Days on Earth Review

20,000 Days on Earth (2014)

Dirs: Iain Forsyth, Jane Pollard

In the prescient reality TV satire The Truman Show the lead character’s life is secretly filmed and broadcast worldwide as the most popular show on Earth. Oblivious to having lived his entire life in public, a seminal moment in the film occurs when Truman turns 10,000 days old (27 years and a bit), leading towards a path of self-discovery and enlightenment. In contrast, singer-writer-performer Nick Cave has lived most of his life knowingly in the spotlight but has often zealously guarded his privacy. The film 20,000 Days on Earth seeks to pull back the curtain a bit but does so in a highly controlled and narrow manner, befitting an enigmatic renaissance man like Cave.

Ostensibly a “documentary”, 20,000 Days on Earth is in fact a scripted film (there are 3 credited screenwriters, including Cave himself) about a day in the life of its subject. The day is meant to be like any other for Cave (sample voiceover: “I wake, I write, I eat, I watch TV.”) but is instead quite eventful, including dream-like conversations with some key artistic collaborators, a sit-down with a probing psychiatrist, and a visit to an archival representation of his memories. The structure allows for a rigid yet fascinating examination of the man and myth that is Nick Cave. Cutaways to recording sessions and live performances inform the main narrative and inject spontaneity and verve.

Evoking an overarching mood of intense introspection and Byronic contemplation, directors Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard match Cave’s intensity by creating a film that swirls and ebbs around its lead. The shots are carefully constructed and often stunning, as day slowly turns to night and the layers of Cave’s persona are peeled back. Fascinating revelations are peppered throughout the film, with the central subject always at somewhat of a remove – wry, knowing, slightly pretentious but massively charismatic. There’s never any doubt that Cave is in the driver’s seat.

The brooding weather of Brighton (where Cave and his family reside) swirls overhead as Cave comments on the adjustments to constant U.K. rain in comparison to his sunny birth country of Australia. He and longtime musical partner Warren Ellis reminisce upon an impactful anecdote about sharing the stage with a ferocious Nina Simone. Actor Ray Winstone (of The Proposition which Cave wrote and scored) appears in Cave’s front seat and ruminates on the fragility of the artistic temperament. Fellow aussie Kylie Minogue (who collaborated with Cave to produce his most unlikely hit “Where The Wild Roses Grow”) pops up in his back seat to reflect upon their mutual success and question his love of performing.

The scenes with the psychiatrist delve into Cave’s childhood and his early love of music, while positing his father’s death (when Cave was 19) as one of the catalyzing events in his young career. There’s also a great line here about heroin and religion (and the relative danger of each) that draws the biggest laughs of the film. The live musical performances shown clearly illustrate what many of the circular conversations allude to – Cave’s intensity and otherworldly presence upon the stage. The backstage scenes that dive into the songwriting and recording process are mundane to be sure, showing the hard work that goes into creating music. They don’t distract from the end result but rather enhance the experience. When a children’s choir sings on “Push The Sky Away” you can appreciate the fact that 20 French kids had to be wrangled in a studio and taught the proper cadence to make that line work.

The latter half of the film is given over to more performances, with the climax consisting of a Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds rendition of “Jubilee Street”. The songs builds to an operatic crescendo that, when paired with a voiceover from Cave essentially summarizing his writing and life philosophy, is enormously powerful. This scene alone is reason enough for the movie to exist, but watch everything leading up to that moment as the entire movie is transfixing and seductive.

Cave has built a world through his writing – his songwriting, his books, his screenplays – and this movie is simply an extension of that. It’s a world where God exists (even if Cave claims to not believe in one outside of his works), a world informed by fiery sermons and violent Westerns, where good men do bad things and bad men do worse. To peer into this world and realize its breadth and depth is to see a singular artistic vision (accomplished with the help of numerous acknowledged collaborators) realized and made whole. Unique in approach and proving you can capture a subject’s essence through tone, 20,000 Days on Earth is thoroughly inspiring.

(Thanks to Toronto Film Scene and Bloor Hot Docs for providing the opportunity to see the film in an ideal setting.)

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