Tuesday, September 23, 2014

'20,000 Days on Earth' (2014) directed by Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard

In 20,000 Days on Earth Nick Cave climbs right up his own arse.  You can't make a film about your life that's stuffed with lengthy philosophical monologues, fetishistic performances and a trip to the hallowed halls of the  'Nick Cave Archive' without coming off as a bit of a narcissist. Soon we're dragged along with him, mentally donning shades, brothel creepers and a black suit and vicariously experiencing what it's like to spend a day as Brighton's most prominent doom-goth-preacher-poet-actor-junkie-polymath-rockstar.

Fortunately for all, though 20,000 Days... spends its entire run-time firmly jammed up Cave's arse, it's one hell of an interesting arse.  Occupying a no man's land between documentary and drama, the premise is that we're follow Cave around Brighton on the 20,000th day of his life.  We watch him wake up, do a spot of writing, tootle around in his car, record some songs, hallucination Ray Winstone, eat some dinner, hang out with his children and do a gig.  You know, typical rockstar stuff.

Reality and fiction blur around Cave, who appears to exert some weird gravitational pull on everything around him.  Though considerably more chilled out than in his mythic heroin egomonster Berlin days, he remains an exceedingly odd (and faintly ridiculous) man. Whether you'll enjoy spending this much time with him doesn't entirely rest on whether you're a fan of Nick Cave, but on your tolerance for calculated eccentricity, melodrama and the art of 'cool'.

There's a few thematic strands running through this, but top of the list is the art of self-transformation.  Cave discusses his childhood desire to transform into a rockstar, the ways his personality changes when he's writing or recording and how some kind of angelic inner-self is revealed when he's faced with an adoring audience.  Cave treats his skin and bones as clay; raw materials for the construction of the outlandish performance personality he now lives.

Occasionally this artifice slips a bit.  During conversations by Ray Winstone, Warren Ellis and Kylie Minogue Cave strives to keep this poker face intact, the mask slipping when he giggles at some forgotten memory or little in-joke.  These glimpses go a long way towards making Cave a likeable person to hang out with, able to poke a bit of fun at himself.

In one of the funniest sequences a deadpan Cave takes us through a series of concert photographs that show their bassist being urinated on.  He becomes a football pundit taking us through a particularly nasty foul, outlining the arc of the urine stream and calmly explaining how the bassist gave up playing and lamped the rogue pisser. Similarly fun is the conversation in which an awestruck Cave and Warren Ellis talk about a Nina Simone gig and particularly her demands for "champagne, cocaine and sausages!"

Cave is confident enough to allow audiences to laugh at him on occasion, safe in the knowledge that he can back it up with outstanding songs.  Don't expect this to be some trek through his considerable discography, rather, a few carefully chosen performances anchor the film.  Higgs Boson Blues stands out as particularly stunning, Cave acting his way through his lyrics, delivering a gentle, subtle performance.  Though his posey-archness feels a bit thickly laid on elsewhere, it's here that it synthesises into something truly magnificent, so damn intense that I felt the urge to applaud the screen when he finished.

It's moments of unalloyed genius like this that Cave earns his right to egotism. Also helping is that his lapses into philosophy are genuinely insightful and surprisingly uplifting. Towards the climax of the film there's a tremendous monologue about the importance of nurturing and realising your ideas.  For fleeting moments he allows you to fantasise about what it's like to have the whole world singing along to your tune.  The summary of his advice is that it's better to have an idea and watch it disastrously crash and burn rather than do nothing with it at all. After all we have only so many days in our lives; wasting them is a sin.

I know I've seen a good film when I walk out of a screening in a much better mood than when I walked in.  As I sat down for 20,000 Days... I was tired, aching and hungry.  97 minutes later I danced out of there on a cloud, fuelled by a climactic performance of Jubilee Street that seamlessly cuts between footage from across Cave's performative history.  It's a microcosm of the rest of the film, and an utterly exhilarating crescendo.

20,000 Days... isn't quite a documentary, it isn't quite a biopic, it isn't quite a concert film - what is emphatically is is very good cinema indeed.  It comes at Nick Cave from a variety of angles, finding him equally fascinating whichever way we look.  As a Nick Cave fan I'm predisposed to deeply dig this, but it's such a smoothly, smartly constructed film that every viewer will find something to admire within.


20,000 Days on Earth is on general release.

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