Friday, September 26, 2014

Quasi-Fictional Documentary 20,000 Days on Earth Imagines 24 Hours in the Life of Nick Cave

Nick Cave and passenger Kylie Minogue had a left-field hit with the duet "Where the Wild Roses Grow" from his 1996 album Murder Ballads.
This is the full text of my Stranger review (find the short version here).

On the basis of his idiosyncratic discography, a conventional documentary
about Nick Cave would come as a surprise—and a disappointment. Fortun-
ately, co-directors Ian Forsyth and Jane Pollard tossed the biographical in-
struction manual in the trash and started fresh. If anything, 20,000 Days on Earth—the figure represents Cave's age on the day depicted in the film—plays like a living scrapbook. Those expecting the filmmakers to check off the usual boxes on the way from birth to adulthood best get their kicks elsewhere, because they won't find much of that sort of thing here.

Cave narrates the entire thing as himself—or the glamorized version he chooses to present on screen (he never appears in jeans and t-
shirts, but rather black suits and extravagant gold jewelry). Since he worked closely with the London filmmakers, he's a collaborator as much
as a subject. In the film, which opens today at The Grand Illusion, he writes, records, and performs songs from 2013's Push the Sky Away with his band, the Bad Seeds, including multi-instrumentalist and magnificent beardo Warren Ellis. "Mostly I write," says Cave, an Australian who calls England home, "tapping and scratching away day and night sometimes."

Cave and Minogue reinvent Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra for the grunge era.

The directors blend observational material with staged conversations,
most of which take place in the confines of a car. That might not qualify
as fiction, but it isn't exactly non-fiction either—or it isn't the way direct-
cinema pioneers, like Albert and David Maysles or Frederick Wiseman, have defined that term through their work. These quasi-surrealistic se-
quences with psychoanalyst Darian Leader (unbilled), actor Ray Win-
stone, guitarist Blixa Bargeld, and Cave's one-time duet partner Kylie Minogue yield intriguing insights about his past (childhood in Wangaratta), present (life in Brighton), joys (performing) and fears (losing his memory).

The unconventional structure represents a major blessing and a minor curse. At times, Cave's narration becomes obtuse, but he tends to dial it back whenever the atmosphere starts to get too close. His humorous and heartfelt commentary about a collection of archival photographs, for in-
stance, highlights his skills as a raconteur (they include black-and-white snapshots of his pre-Bad Seeds outfits, the Boys Next Door and the Birth-
day Party). Erik Wilson's exquisite cinematography—marked by dramatic lighting and elegantly framed compositions—is the crowning touch.

My favorite part: Cave lounging on a couch with his twins (Earl and Arthur), eating pizza, bathed in the glow of a TV set. The staging suggests that they're watching a wacky comedy or a classic western, but this is a man who's written songs about dead babies ("The Firstborn Is Dead") and electrocutions ("The Mercy Seat"). When Al Pacino's immortal line arrives, the faces of father and sons light up as they speak along in unison, "Say hello to my little friend!" It's a quintessential Nick Cave moment.

20,000 Days opens today at the Grand Illusion. Image from Drafthouse Films.

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