Nick Cave – post-punk, counter culture legend, novelist, screenwriter and occasional actor has certainly led a very full life and on the day we meet him is living his 20,000th day on the planet. It is, of course, a fairly arbitrary number and a fictional conceit taken from one of Cave’s old notebooks in which he realised he was exactly 20,000 days old when he began working on the album that would eventually be released last year – Push the Sky Away. 20,000 Days on Earth is not your usual rockumentary – part fictionalised, fairly light on personal histories and musical performances, the film seems to want to push deeper into the nature of art, and the artist, more than the man known as Cave.
The film begins with an explosive series of images ranging from the important pop-culture moments of the last fifty years to what could be the personal images of someone’s life alongside a clock counting up to the all important 20,000th day. Cave, awake at 6.59, gets up from his all white bed leaving a still sleeping dark haired woman with her face obscured by pillows (presumably his wife, Susie). He informs us that he ceased to be a human being at the end of the twentieth century – he eats, writes, watches TV, plays with his children and ‘terrorises’ his wife. This fictional 24 hours in the creation of an album sees Cave probing and re-evaluating his life as an artist, his creative process and ultimately his purpose in life. What it does not do, particularly, is attempt to tell the story of Cave’s life or reveal any great personal truths but this extraordinary and ramshackle testament to the nature of art is as beguiling as it is inspiring.
Cave narrates his story with the air of a pulpy noir detective sitting down at a typewriter, probably fatally wounded, to tell us how it all went wrong after ‘that dame’ walked into his office. Equal parts Walter Neff leaving a last confession on a tape recorder and a punkish William Burroughs offering poetic and philosophical musings on the nature of memory and the art of transformation, Cave imparts to us the secrets of his craft. It’s not all solo musings though as Cave is visited by three ‘ghosts’ of his past each accompanying him on a picturesque drive along Brighton’s seafront. With actor Ray Winstone, who starred in the Cave scripted The Proposition, Cave seems deferent but talks about his love of performing and rejection of conscious ‘re-invention’. A second meeting with ex-bandmember Blix Bargeld feels rawer as they discuss the reasons for his departure from the band but the third, with fellow Ozzie Kylie Minogue feels altogether warmer and more cheerful. Each disappear as mysteriously as they arrived and you can’t help but wonder if they were ever really there at all or just a re-conjured memory or an imagined conversation only existing inside Cave’s mind. That’s not to mention the frequent reminiscences with more recent collaborator Warren Ellis about shared memories and an artistic working relationship or the fake interview with a psychoanalyst who probes Cave on his earliest sexual experiences and relationship with his father.
Cave describes himself at one point as ‘a front row kind of guy’ and worries that his performances don’t stretch so far beyond that. He likes to pick an audience member and ‘terrify’ them, there’s something about the mix of awe and terror that fascinates him and indeed the scenes from an intimate concert at Camden’s Koko show him bringing one female audience member to a state of near fearful ecstasy – such is his stage presence. The film features scenes from the creation of an album but isn’t the usual chronicle of its completion nor an exploration of the album itself. The whole thing climaxes with a triumphant performance sequence taken from a high octane concert taking place at Sydney Opera House which bears testimony to his skill as a stage performer and the ultimate justification of everything that’s gone before. In a slice of cinema magic, Cave appears to step out of Sydney Opera house directly onto the pebble beach at Brighton where he offers another description likening the process of songwriting as being like a sighting of a sea monster – sometimes you only see the humps but it’s your job to lure Nessie to the surface.
20,000 Days on Earth sometimes feels like one of those late night pub corner conversations with a mysterious old man who’s decided he wants to tell you his story. You aren’t sure if any of this is true, and some of it certainly sounds improbable in the least, but something about his delivery or the look in his eyes makes you want to believe him. He’s telling you the story he wants you to hear which bears its own truth, even if it wasn’t the one you were expecting. Lyrical and strangely profound 20,000 Days on Earth is an inspiring journey inside the mind of an artistic genius.