20,000 Days on Earth

A semi-fictionalized documentary about a day in the life of Australian musician Nick Cave's persona.


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  • ★★★★ review by Filmspotting on Letterboxd

    Came in with no real relationship to Nick Cave or his music and loved this trip... It doesn't exactly enter F FOR FAKE territory, but it's just contrived and calibrated enough, with Cave openly musing about his fascination with narratives and instinctive need to embellish his own experiences, that it wouldn't shock me to learn that the "documentary's" only bit of truth – so far as these things go – is what I came in already knowing: Cave is a fringe rock star who spends a lot of time writing and recording songs. Maybe he doesn't live in Brighton, isn't married to a (stunning) woman named Suzie, doesn't have twin boys, doesn't see a therapist, and there's no team of people in a dark basement archiving the artifacts of his personal and professional history. Or I could just as easily accept that every last bit of it is true – so far as these things go.

    Of course, I could do a quick Google search... but why spoil the enigma with facts? Wouldn't be in keeping with the artistic spirit of a movie where Ray Winstone and Kylie Minogue, playing themselves, can suddenly appear, like apparitions, in Cave's backseat.

    All real or all fake, there are few people, real or fake, who are so effortlessly cool on screen, and who can muse about their life and their work without sounding even slightly self-aggrandizing or pretentious.

  • ★★★★★ review by Graham Williamson on Letterboxd

    "I am transforming, I am vibrating - I'm glowing - I'm flying! Look at me now!"

    I used to suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder. It's much better now - I'm miserable all the year round these days - and one of the ways I used to get it under control was to take photos and videos of grey, rainy skies. If I could take the weather that was troubling me and turn it into a matter of exposure lengths and f-stops, I could control it.

    One of the many, many, many revelations of Jane Pollard and Iain Forsyth's new film about Nick Cave is that he used to do the same thing. Although Cave never struck me as the sort of Australian boy who loved his country's sunshine (or, indeed, has seen his country's sunshine), he found the weather in Brighton a bit of a shock when he first moved there. So he started keeping a diary where he recorded his impressions of the weather, that quickly became a depository for all his anxieties and nagging, irrational worries. The artistic impulse is to take those things you can't control - nature, your feelings, the things that keep you awake - and turn them into something you've created.

    Forsythe and Pollard are most famous for their video art work, including a series of reconstructions of classic concerts - File Under Sacred Music is a recreation of the Cramps' gig at Napa Mental Institute, A Rock 'n' Roll Suicide repeats the trick for the final Ziggy Stardust show. One of the wonderful things about 20,000 Days on Earth is that unlike their previous work it's not dependent on the quality or historic value of the music it depicts. It helps, of course, if you're a fan, and the rehearsal of 'Higgs Boson Blues' which plays out for seven minutes made my hair stand on end. But going in I wondered whether I would be as interested in this film, and its depiction of Nick Cave's creative process, if I wasn't so utterly in love with the album (Push the Sky Away) that it resulted in. And it turns out that this would be a great film even if it was about the making of Nocturama.

    Nocturama is specifically criticised by former Bad Seed Blixa Bargeld when he appears in Cave's car during one of the film's fantasy sequences. Occasionally Cave's collaborators do materialise like this, and the results are different and equally delightful. Bargeld's appearance is touching and raw, Ray Winstone's cameo is honest and hilarious, and when Kylie Minogue appears in the rear view mirror like Cybill Shepherd in the back of Robert De Niro's cab, it puts the dream-like, wistful capper on the whole thing.

    These moments of unreality have attracted more attention than they're really worth. It's best to approach 20,000 Days on Earth not as a documentary but as the modern-day equivalent to one of those old rock films like A Hard Day's Night or Slade in Flame where a band play a version of themselves. Except now, with rock music past its sixtieth birthday, the rise-and-fall narrative of these earlier films is obsolete. Pollard and Forsyth's film is about a man nobody expected to make it past 27 celebrating his fiftieth birthday, and trying to work out the still-unanswered question: how can you be a rock star in middle age?

    So when Cave goes to see a psychiatrist who probes him about his childhood, I'm sure the situation is set up and that isn't really Nick Cave's psychiatrist (if he has one at all). But that doesn't mean the answers he's giving are untrue or unrevealing. He talks about hearing his father read the first chapter of Lolita and pointing out all the different literary devices Nabokov was using, and he says his father seemed like a different man to him there.

    This is what 20,000 Days on Earth is about - the transformation, as Werner Herzog put it, of the world into music. A friend of mine frequents a music forum where there is a thread for Brighton-based members to post their bathetic Nick Cave sightings - the man who was once spotted in his youth writing lyrics with a blood-filled syringe is now cycling down the sea front eating a cheese pastie, that sort of thing.

    But I think the man who wrote the line "I woke up this morning with a frappucino in my hand" is quite comfortable with bathos, and is certainly comfortable using this film to expose the difference between the middle-aged father-of-four he is and the roiling prophet of doom he is on stage. To say you can't imagine that gap being bridged is to say you can't imagine art being transformative, or having a power beyond the literal, and if you think that, why do you like art at all?

    If you like reality, I will note that the "Nick Cave archives" seen in this film look remarkably similar to Pollard and Forsyth's offices, which I saw afterwards in a short video talking about their excellent short Edit. The most important and lasting thing about that archive set, though, is the monologue Cave delivers about first seeing his wife Susie at the end of the scene, where a staggering text about how she seemed to embody all of the women he's ever fell for is matched with Pollard and Forsyth's blistering montage of archive clips. It's all true, except it's better than that.

  • ★★★★ review by Steven Sheehan on Letterboxd

    Nick Cave plays Nick Cave in a 'documentary' that at times seems to encompass larger cinematic proportions than you would typically associate with the genre. The film is presented as his 20,000 day alive since birth, 24 hours in the life of an artist, a husband, a Dad, a dreamer, a realist and a middle-age man living in Brighton. To call this a documentary is not really true in the strictest sense, regularly drifting into the fictional realm so often inhabited by its subjects songs.

    Certainly if you are turned on by the idea of delving into an artists creative process, being taken into the confusing, restless mind that attempts to make sense of their life and world around them within a four minute song, then read on. Co-directors Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard, assisted by Cave's own literary voice over, come as close as ever to channelling that mysterious space that lies between reality and imagination. Or transformation, as Cave himself calls it. The moment when time ceases to exist and the only thing that matters is now, right now, because everything else means nothing except the connection between you and the thing - whatever it may be - that you want to wrap yourself within forever. Except it can't stay that long which is what makes it so beautiful and eternally sought after.

    We follow Cave working with the Bad Seeds on the songs that formed their 2013 album Push the Sky Away. Sitting inbetween a few performances of the songs Cave talks with a psychiatrist about memories from his childhood that have impacted on his creative approach. Going through an archive of old personal and professional photographs later he touches on his old group, how love was found and love lost. The films dreamlike form continues to take shape with car conversations alongside Ray Winstone and Kylie Minogue that offer an outsider perspective of Cave and a performers struggle with identity.

    Being a Nick Cave fan probably helps but it certainly isn't a necessity to enjoy the ideas being explored. The project feels like a collaborative attempt by the directors and the artist as springboard to look at more than just a creative mind. Sharp editing moves in flow with Cave's own lyrical narration to offer contemplation on our own myriad of influences, thoughts and fleeting moments that have brought us here, together, writing/reading this sentence. There is no direction or rules to examine, rather a celebration of how wonderfully individual these personal chimes ring true for each and everyone of us, whether up there on stage, or standing in awe down below.

    This is a remarkably strong debut from Forsyth and Pollard and one gets the impression that this refreshing shake-up of how a documentary can be approached will be one of many directions they head in. Here they have taped into a rich vein that presents far more than just a look at a musician doing his 'thing', leaving us with plenty to ruminate and reflect upon, doing exactly what its very subject is supposed to deposit in our minds.

  • ★★★★★ review by Graham Williamson on Letterboxd

    When I talk about editing as a creative art form, I'm thinking of things like showing Nick Cave kicking the air, then cutting in mid-movement to his younger self completing the same move. Poetry, commentary and emotion in one cut.

    This is still brilliant.

  • ★★★★★ review by Simon Ramshaw on Letterboxd

    Now I will tell you how to slay the dragon.

    20,000 Days on Earth is simply the feeling you get when something higher than yourself is levelling with you. Nick Cave, a being drifting around in the philosophical stratosphere at the dumbest of times, is an artist that I never expected to decipher, nor even appreciate. The trailer of this quasi-documentary suggests further impenetrable ramblings about 'Important Stuff', yet I can't imagine a more inviting and welcoming creation of random musings than this.

    Tinkering with structure playfully, 20,000 Days's concept is slight yet expansive. Following Nick Cave's 20,000th day on Planet Earth (we can only assume he's spent many more days on other planets), it segues between reminiscing about the creation of his latest album, Push The Sky Away, imagining conversations with old collaborators and actually having conversations with current ones. What is documentary and what is not is blurred in a fascinating fashion, with the musical interludes never killing the pace or momentum. Directors Forsyth and Pollard know and respect their subject and hold him in the highest regard, so to do anything less than giving him many scenes detailing his art in its full capacity would be a gross discredit.

    This type of self-indulgence works as if Jim Morrison were still alive and having a film made about him today. Cave is a more inviting figure, his unconventional, vampiric features making him an almost Byronic presence; always alluring, rather unpredictable yet pleasingly rewarding with a leap of faith. Cave even grants us a peek into his past in one beautifully-played basement remembrance of the past with an affectionate slideshow of amusing photographs and hilarious anecdotes forming an unexpectedly human side to Cave. Although possibly staged, there's a lot to love just watching him go, and there's actually a fair case for him giving the performance that's the darkest horse of this year.

    The cameos, although fleeting, are full of wit and warmth, with Kylie Minogue's previously-teased, late-coming presence a highlight like she was in Leos Carax's acting oddity, Holy Motors. Warren Ellis forms great chemistry with his long-time collaborator, but with a cast so expansive, the real credit should go to Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard for actually pulling the disparate cast and the expansive film together into a tightly-wrapped, 97 minute package. Like all the best albums, it provides tasters of what is to come before delivering a soulful and triumphant crescendo in the form of Cave's live performance of Jubilee Street. If you don't get chills when he's transformin' and vibratin', then you, my friend, are lost.

    In short, this is the Doors experience I never had. Instead, Forsyth and Pollard have opened my eyes and directed my attention to the next best thing. If Cave is someone to travel back in time to appreciate, Forsyth and Pollard are a duo to look for in the future. This won't be the last we'll see of any of the above.

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