“I wake, I write, I eat, I write, I watch TV…this is my 20,000th day on earth“. This is the first line of the extremely entertaining, if entirely laid back and subdued, documentary about one of rock music’s more enigmatic personalities. It’s worth noting the odd yet impacting introduction – a seemingly perfect entrance for Cave – because, like this seasoned musician, this film is anything but conventional. Like Henry Rollins without the anger, like Tom Waits with a slightly cooler groove, and like a beatnik poet who actually made something of his endlessly wild life, Nick Cave is a one of a kind entertainer.
A breath of fresh air, as far as docs go, 20,ooo Days on Earth casts a light on its subject that is just about as unique as its subject. Hope we didn’t lose anyone there. Offering more than the “he was born here, and went to school here” format we could edit in our sleep, Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard present this documentary as if it were an act in one of Cave’s shows. It’s a hodgepodge of ideas that mixes staged situations (in a very Fincher-looking filmic fashion) with fly-on-the-wall discussions about whatever Cave and long time friend Warren Ellis (or Cave’s therapist) happen to be talking about. There’s even a sequence that finds Cave almost post-humously looking over his possessions in a 1940’s British bunker. But things get stranger still.
This is one doc that tries to add interesting visuals each time Cave shares parts of his life with us. The result is that the pic appropriately matches the style and eccentricity of its subject, and really, you wonder why more docs don’t take this approach. Some of it is boring and few great insights are brought to light, but, just short of bearing his soul, through his witticisms and endlessly stream of great quotes (really, we could have filled this review with things he said in the pic) Cave tells us that “performing is about forgetting who you are“. As such, even when doing nothing he’s performing.
But when he’s on stage, that’s all him. It’s not an alter-ego. Though slow, it’s these single take sequences that prove there’s magic in the moment. Cave is talented, and it’s hypnotic to see him perform. Yet, an added layer of depth exists to see that the same man who plays a piano with most fingers but the ring finger on each hand types those memorable lyrics with just his index fingers. Simply put. Cave prompts more questions than he himself can answer.
Inter-cut with his own magical narration, 20,000 Days On Earth is a series of surreal situations. Sometimes he’s driving a car by himself, and then all of a sudden he’s got Ray Winstone or Kylie Minogue as a passenger…are they real, or are they figments of his imagination? Minor spoiler, it’s the former, because a guy like Nick has all sorts of friends you’d never expect and his life, as always, is about making a statement.
Even the title makes a statement. It calls back to one of the most basic of human needs – a way to quantify your life. No matter how you live your life, everything is fleeting. 20,000 Days is a highly poetic art piece posing as a music doc. But that’s ok because, as Cave says, he’s no longer human and sees himself as a contradiction. This experiment, that has intimate flashbacks played through counseling sessions, allows Nick to bear his soul and let us, so to speak, into the cave.
All of the art and tedium of the who and the why fall by the wayside once Cave starts singing. A kind of Bob Seger meets David Bowie force of nature, Cave is effective in lulling the audience with songs quiet, loud or, most of all, as abstract as he is. It’s an experience that’s for sure, like trying a new kind of scotch – take it in slowly, and openly, and you’ll start to notice and appreciate the strange nuance and sophistication.
The first time directors fuse drama and documentary, and, even if nothing overly grand happens, they aren’t concerned with a final performance to cement Cave’s name in the history books. Instead, the film finds its groove in the groove captured in Cave’s quaint studio sessions. At times he may seem like an aging hipster, or something resembling a failed Vegas act. But, in each absurd performance, there’s brilliance and profound poetry to his lyrics which keep people hanging on his every word. And when he, being Australian notwithstanding, can fill the Sydney Opera House just as easily as a dive bar, it just reaffirms how far Cave has distanced himself from the pack.
Near the end of this picture, Cave gives us his take on the impetus that keeps him performing. It is one of the best motivational bits we’ve heard in a while, so, in light of a better, more intellectual way to close out this review, we wanted to share it with you here. “All of our days are numbered. We cannot afford to be idle. To act on a bad idea is better than to not act at all, because the worth of an idea never becomes apparent until you do it.
Sometimes this idea can be the smallest thing in the world – a little flame that you hunch over, and cup with your hand, and pray will not be extinguished by all the storm that howls about it. If you can hold on to that flame, great things can be constructed around it that are massive, and powerful, and world changing. All held up by the tiniest of ideas.” So, like Cave, go forth and do something, anything, but make it yours. The clock is ticking…