Arthur Cave looms large over One More Time with Feeling, Andrew Dominik’s documentary of the making of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ new album The Skeleton Tree (released today). The fifteen year old son of legendary baroque rocker Nick Cave and his wife Susie died after falling from a 60 foot cliff in July last year, and (to the surprise of none, considering the circumstances) has not really discussed the matter in great detail in public. Instead, Nick, Susie and Arthur’s twin brother Earl took time away from the spotlight to grieve, while Nick began to exorcise his demons through the finishing of The Bad Seeds’ sixteenth studio album, bringing New Zealand director Dominik along for the ride. Cave has never been one to be coy with expressing himself, and with death such a fundamental subject in his music (he did release an album called Murder Ballads, after all), how he would find a way through such an immense personal tragedy while continuing to life at least some vestige of his normal life is the stuff documentaries exist to capture.
Cave’s last foray into the documentary realm was 2014’s biography film 20,000 Days on Earth, an extremely unconventional look at the man’s life in his mid 50’s as he completed the Bad Seeds’ previous album, Push the Sky Away. Nick Cave rarely approaches his projects straight on, so it should not come as a shock that One More Time with Feeling begins in a bit of an off-kilter manner. Shot in black and white 3-D (though I attended a 2D screening) by Benoît Debie and Alwin H. Küchler, the film begins with a few short scenes that mostly revolve around their attempts to wrangle the high tech cameras going spectacularly wrong. Opening with an interview with longtime Bad Seed and Cave’s film scoring partner Warren Ellis, a cavern hermit who has come down from the mountains with violin in tow to wow us with skin prickling string arrangements, the video quickly cuts to black as something goes wrong. The opening titles appear on the screen as Dominik and crew explain to Cave that he has to undress himself and get dressed again, as the shot they had planned played out while the 3D rig was on the fritz. So he must go through the motions again, one more time with feeling. It is an arresting way to begin a documentary with the specter of loss looming over it, but it does set the table for the possibility of levity in the middle of what is sure to come as Cave gives his first long-form thoughts since the passing of his son.
Cave’s words are about loss and grief and eventual acceptance, conveyed to the audience through conventional interviews and voice over poetry matched with stately footage of his home in Brighton, England. The best of these is an anecdote about visiting a local bakery still in the darkest period of mourning shortly after Arthur’s death, where the world doesn’t seem quite real and everything feels like it is wrapped in plastic. A man comes up to him with some simple words of comfort: “We are all with you, man.” And all Cave can think is “But when did [I] become an object of pity?” He is so taken aback by the situation, so unprepared for it even after a life spent wallowing in the macabre with The Bad Seeds. Those were stories, and this is real. He talks about moving away from narrative songs into something more abstract, a trend that has been in the works for some time, though is more pronounced on The Skeleton Tree, reasoning that he has something that he has to get out of himself without transmitting it through a story of someone or something external. His face has certainly externalized his sorrow, aging twenty years in the two since 20,000 Days on Earth, gaunt wrinkles and deep bags under his eyes, his very skin pulled down from the weight of his loss. There is an incredible and often overwhelming truth to his words; he has always been a poet, and his ability to express the torrent of emotions that have assailed him in the past year is captivating. No one should have to go through what Nick Cave has endured, but few are as well equipped to talk about it. On the subject of time healing all wounds, he remarks that “time is elastic. We can go away from the event but at some point the elastic snaps and we always come back to it.”
We must remember, of course, that One More Time with Feeling is still ostensibly a making of documentary, detailing the crafting of The Skeleton Tree with a series hypnotic dolly shots that circle Cave’s piano as lyrics slither from his mouth to the microphone. The other Bad Seeds come and go, though Ellis is a constant presence (their relationship has always been a joy to watch; a bizarre dinner table conversation between the two is one of 20,000 Days on Earth’s highlights). Dominik presents five or six songs from the album as fully formed music videos (both “Jesus Alone” and “I Need You” have been released separately from the film at this point), his active camera exploring the full space of Cave’s Brighton studio, with massive photo umbrellas creating blinding halos of light. Most striking about it all is how fragile the performances are. Cave comments early on that he wished he had done some vocal warm ups before coming to the studio, but that sense of delicacy, that the slightest bit of pressure could shatter it all, makes the performances beguiling and deeply felt in a way he has not presented himself in his near 40 years on stage. He’s a different man now, and the Bad Seeds are a different band. Not better or worse, but different.
It’s fascinating that Dominik would be involved in this project, which seems little to nothing like his films Chopper, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford or Killing Them Softly. Cave and Ellis provided the score for Jesse James, which might be enough of a link to bring him in, and if Cave was looking to make his take on a music documentary something different, hiring someone who has never done anything like it in his career would presumably be a good start. In practice, Dominik is an excellent fit, filming with staggering beauty and style, the black and white cinematography giving the experience a haunted, otherworldly edge. There are a few times his decisions are a bit of a puzzle, including some Panic Room era David Fincher camera pans that move around and through walls in a way that threatens to break the spell of immersion. There is also one sequence in color that does not particularly justify itself, a case of making a music video for the music video’s sake. But these minor quibbles amount to barely ten minutes of its 112, and the rest of One More Time with Feeling is so powerfully affecting and emotionally resonant that those moments barely remain in the thoughts by the time the credits roll. Cave and Dominik (and Ellis and his wife and everyone else involved in this film) have made a gorgeous and weighty rumination on loss and grief. It may be a portrait of a time and the making of an album, but its statements are eternal.