Nick Cave has never really been himself. In all his oeuvre, he’s always played the role of observational poet; his work, while sometimes intensely personal, is always marked by the unmistakable sense of voyeurism, of looking in at another’s life. From The Bad Seeds’ first venomous 1983 recording of Leonard Cohen’s “Avalanche” to the metatextual eeriness of 2013’s “Finishing Jubilee Street,” he has lived the necessary lie of the poet. Even his frequent artistic self-presentation, a product of English post-punk aesthetics and Southern gothic hellfire, contradicts the reality of his Melbourne upbringing.
And now, with “20,000 Days on Earth,” Cave (along with co-writers and directors Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard) has found a way to synthetically invent himself as creator, as well. The film suggests it’s an unbiased portrait of Cave’s 20,000 day, from when he wakes up to when he crawls into bed (which is, tellingly, never actually shown) but immediately that isn’t the case.
Instead we get set cameras that stage the scene, a wife whose face never fits into the frame, clearly scripted monologues that Cave intones in his Australian brogue over the action. In effect, what we’re presented is an absurdist documentary, a long laugh that Cave exhumes at the thought of any “objective” portrayal of reality—poetic, prosaic or otherwise—could ever be real.
The uncanny disreality of the presentation allows for some wonderfully surreal moments. Cave, in the throes of angst regarding his advancing age, is magically visited during intermissions in his car by figures from his past. The scenes may be written, directed even, but there’s a sense of bizarre psychoprojection that comes through the sculpted clay.
For instance, Cave speaks with longtime ally Blixa Bargeld and the two air out the differences that led to their split after 2003’s (admittedly lackluster) Nocturama; with (bizarrely enough) English actor Ray Winstone over nationality and the creep of oldness, and with Kylie Minogue (dueling vocalist on Cave’s ’90s hit “Where the Wild Roses Grow”) who shares little performance anecdotes that make the usually stoic gargoyle Cave laugh, a crack in his character.
All of it feels a little like Cave talking to himself while traversing the countryside, playing his own therapist—but if the encounters themselves are staged, the subjects they divulge are carefully controlled and intentional.
In between drives Cave dips into reality for moments of stabilizing lucidity. He stops by his therapist’s office and discusses his tumultuous early life: his loves, his shows, his drug abuse and his relationship with his long deceased father. Later he meets up with current Bad Seeds’ violinist and frequent soundtrack collaborator Warren Ellis for a cooked eel lunch and recording for 2013’s Push the Sky Away—an album that, appropriately, was largely dominated by the increasing influence of Ellis’s ghostly loops and haunting string work. Finally, Cave reviews material for his archives and then stops home to watch a surreally violent movie with his two kids (the camera slowly zooms out facing them on the couch and they laugh and eat pizza as the sound of explosions and gunfire echo from the television).
It’s a strange mix of realism and mumbling dream logic, grounded all by Cave’s looming mortality and his compulsion to rationalize it and maybe even justify it through his music.
The film itself, meanwhile, succeeds in justifying its existence not as a portrait of the artist but rather a portrait of the artist as he conceives himself to be. Cave has, in this bizarre pseudo-documentary, managed to capture a crystallization of who he is artistically—after all, his work has always spoken strongest of all. It makes sense that nothing would ever fit his character immortalization as well as a movie he wrote and directed.
And even if you’re a not a diehard fan, there’s still plenty to be enjoyed here. Stripped of all the necessary in-references of a traditional documentary, the piece almost works instead as a traditional film—given you can stomach art-house introspection and character study.
The film also features gorgeous cinematography and a few live performances that showcase the final products of Cave’s in-studio noodlings throughout the film (and highlight his oft-discussed Dionysian wildness on stage) to serve as a sort of explosive climax to all the soul-searching. And if the film comes to any concrete conclusion, it’s that making music and letting it loose on the world is the thing Nick Cave does best. Watching it finally happen is truly rewarding, no matter what your personal stakes in the matter are.