Film Reviews

Nick Cave Welcomes Us into the Darkness, and Who Could Resist that?

Should we trust artists to tell the story of artists? On the plus side, who understands them better? If there's a secret language of imagination and creativity, then the members of this sprawling tribe must be the ones who speak it best. On the other hand, could there be anything more insufferable than artists talking to artists about art? We come to painters, musicians, actors and photographers all the time for answers. Somehow we believe, often correctly, that they can get at all manner of delicate truths that can't be captured in everyday words. But when artists talk to each other, there's always the risk that we'll be shut outside their bubble of understanding.

20,000 Days on Earth is a documentary about an artist, Australian-born singer, musician and composer Nick Cave, made by artists, Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard, who have a background in experimental film and video art. The surprise is how plainspoken, illuminating and delightful it is, and, as shot by Erik Wilson, how beautiful. It's that rare documentary that works as its own visual creation.

Of course Cave is a pretty interesting guy. 20,000 Days on Earth is technically a documentary, but it doesn't pretend to any cinéma vérité purity. The movie is set up as a supposedly typical Nick Cave day, scripted with his own words, rendered in voiceover, combined with conversations he has with the people around him. As a singer, Cave, who made a name for himself in the 1980s — first with his band the Birthday Party and later with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds — has a brooding voice and to an extent, his view of life and art matches that sound. One of Pollard and Forsyth's novel ideas was to sit Cave down with a psychoanalyst, Darian Leader, who asks Cave what he fears most. The answer: losing his memory. "Memory is what we are," he says.

But in addition to being deeply thoughtful, Cave often comes off as affable and direct. He shows a wry sense of humor that's not always apparent in his songs, which often conjure the lacy, inky blackness of Victorian mourning clothes. 20,000 Days on Earth is meticulously crafted but nonetheless feels casual and heartfelt. It's revelatory, and wonderful, to watch Cave walking (or driving) around, being a real person. We see Cave dropping in for lunch at the home of his friend, bandmate and collaborator Warren Ellis. The two huddle together in the cramped kitchen and get down to their gossip like neighborhood housewives who have known one another forever. They share memories of a show they played with a very cranky Nina Simone near the end of her life: She stashed her chewing gum under the piano just as she took the stage; Ellis reveals to Cave, apparently for the first time, that he scraped it off and saved it.

There's plenty of Cave's music in 20,000 Days on Earth, though it's mostly folded into the movie's margins as a way of shedding light on his songwriting process. There is, however, some marvelous performance footage at the end, including Cave and the Bad Seeds lighting a figurative match to "Stagger Lee" in a smallish club. Dressed in an elegantly tailored suit jacket, Cave works the front row like Edward Gorey's version of a teenybopper-heartthrob, making eye contact with girls who speak the eternal unspoken rock 'n' roll language of eyeliner and messy hair. Cave speaks their language, just as he speaks ours. If 20,000 Days on Earth is a portrait of an artist, made by artists, it's inclusive in the best way. It doesn't make Nick Cave into someone cuddly. Who would want that? It does something much better: It makes him just believably human enough, without dissolving his mystique.

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Stephanie Zacharek was the principal film critic at the Village Voice from 2013 to 2015. She is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and of the National Society of Film Critics. In 2015 Zacharek was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism.

Her work also appeared in the publications of the Voice’s film partner, Voice Media Group: LA Weekly, Denver Westword, Phoenix New Times, Miami New Times, Broward-Palm Beach New Times, Houston Press, Dallas Observer and OC Weekly.

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