20,000 Days on Earth is a new documentary (if it can be entirely considered that) that follows novelist/screenwriter/poet/musician Nick Cave as he reaches and lives through his eponymous 20,000th day living on the Earth. In practice, this device makes for a welcome jumping-off point for the film after a stirring credit sequence that counts up the days as windows of footage of Cave’s life flicker by and he morphs from a child to the out of control front man of The Birthday Party and the early days of the Bad Seeds to the more dignified elder statesman of rock and roll he has become in the last two decades. The title and the opening sequences seem to point to a standard chronological look at the man and his life. In truth, 20,000 Days on Earth is not much concerned with anything of the sort.
In actuality, the film takes bits and pieces from every other sort of rock documentary that has been made, and stitches them together into a tapestry, a sampling of what it must be like to be Nick Cave. At times its dominant method of transferring information is voice over narration from Cave himself, a sort of documentary in the style of a biopic, and other times it is heavy on probing, biographical interviews. There are no cut aways to acquaintances and friends, talking heads discussing his life and legacy. Everything is through Nick’s lens. There are scenes of Cave visiting friend and collaborator Warren Ellis, there are performances of full songs both in the studio and in concert. There is quite a bit of footage from the making of the Bad Seeds’ most recent album, 2013’s Push the Sky Away. None of this appears to be handled with any sort of structural logic or chronology, but instead twists and turns at the whim of its directors and subject.
Nick Cave is a magnetic personality, charismatic, erudite and filled to the brim with a detached rock star sense of cool. As he drifts through this heavily controlled and constructed day of his life, he is confessional but remains guarded, always in his own sort of element with full knowledge of the presence of the camera and filmmakers. The artifice is in full effect as Cave drives from appointment to appointment and imagines conversations with friends and collaborators from his past, only to have them magically appear in the car as if they were always with him. Whether it’s Ray Winstone (the lead from the “Jubilee Street” video), or Blixa Bargeld (long time former member of The Bad Seeds) or Kylie Minogue (Cave’s partner on “Where the Wild Roses Grow,” the closest song The Bad Seeds ever had to a crossover hit), these scenes kill any remaining sense that 20,000 Days on Earth is in any way on the level, but the invented situations do not detract from the rich and satisfying conversations that occur. Cave, Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard are not trying to stray from the central mission of creating a portrait of the man in his mid fifties, but they do not have any interest in adhering to the narrative and imaginative limitations of a traditional documentary.
This nonfiction film is at its best when the structure falls away. The most satisfying moments exist beyond the biography. Cave explaining to some sort of psychiatrist how he came to equate going to church with scoring drugs. A lovely stripped down performance of “Push the Sky Away” contrasted with Ellis’ chaotic session conducting a children’s choir singing the backing vocals. Cave and Ellis, sitting around a kitchen table, trading stories about a particularly memorable gig with Nina Simone. Really, anything involving Ellis, who on stage is a raving psychopath of barely controlled energy and away from prying eyes is an incredibly funny and droll Australian man, is an immediate winner. These are the moments that will stick around after the credits roll. There are times when the proceedings get a little too rigid and biographical, such as a visit Cave makes to an archivist who is collecting pictures from his childhood and early career, but the excitement far outweighs the slower bits.
20,000 Days on Earth is a mesmerizing portrait of a gifted artist and what makes him tick. Its nontraditional approach (a documentary with screenplay credits is an odd thing to see indeed) is a suitable match for Cave’s outsized personality, wide-ranging talents and intellectual proclivities. It is certainly required viewing for fans of any of his work, musical or otherwise (the performances alone are practically worth the price of admission, especially for anyone who has not had the distinct pleasure of seeing his band live), but it is not simply fan service. There is more than enough visual, narrative and structural intrigue to ignite the imagination of documentary fans and film fans in general, especially those who enjoy straying off the beaten path, eager for a documentary that is more than willing to stretch the veracity of its form to do true justice to its subject.