Counting the days
20,000 Days on Earth, documentary/drama, not rated, Jean Cocteau Cinema, 3.5 chiles This quasi-documentary about 24 hours in the life of elusive Australian rocker Nick Cave on his 20,000th day since birth won filmmakers Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard directing and editing awards at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. While it’s not unscripted, there’s an ease to Cave’s narration in 20,000 Days on Earth as we watch him driving his car, meeting with band mates and a Freudian therapist, delving into his archives to look over memorabilia, and playing to enraptured audiences. It is a simple premise underscored by insights into and revelations about Cave’s creative process, done with an integrity that keeps the film from seeming like a vanity project. That’s not bad for a semifictionalized account of a life, and Forsyth and Pollard paint the film with moody, dark, and intimate tones. Cave’s descriptions of his working process and the transformative magic of performing on stage are quietly compelling, while the musical numbers are electric and enthralling.
Over the course of this single day, Cave meets up with fellow Bad Seeds members Warren Ellis and Blixa Bargeld and chats with Kylie Minogue, whose duet with Cave, “Where the Wild Roses Grow,” was a standout from his 1996 album Murder Ballads. But the details of conversations are where the film finds much of its strength. When the fifty-seven-year-old musician is asked if he still loves performing, he talks about being transported when he’s onstage. His conversation with therapist Darian Leader shows Cave to be an artist whose past is still informing his present. If Cave is an outsider, it’s not in the world of performance, but he does seem to be more removed from the world of family. When he states at one point that memory is all we have, we sense that Cave has missed out on some things in life but cherishes what’s left.
Seeing the Bad Seeds before a live audience is reason enough to watch. Their musical numbers play out like Apollonian/Dionysian struggles, with Cave at the piano and orchestral accompaniments that are intensely theatrical. Between these set pieces, Cave appears to be consumed by his passion for writing; the mental cogs never seem to stop turning. His ability to find so much beauty in his intensive inquiries into God, art, and the human condition is inspiring. Cave doesn’t come off as a haunted man so much as one whose identity is wrapped up in a persona that is multilayered and in service of a vision. Scenes of Cave thumbing through old photographs from his personal archive are telling and, perhaps more than any other parts of the film, candid and honest. The line between truth and reality is blissfully blurred in 20,000 Days on Earth, but it makes you wonder, wouldn’t that be true of anyone’s story? We see the Cave he wants us to see.
— Michael Abatemarco