‘20,000 Days on Earth’: Myth understood

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This film – one can’t call it a documentary – about Nick Cave utterly rejects the established tropes of the rock doc. Far from being a revelatory mythbuster that digs into the psyche of a star, 20,000 Days on Earth only buttresses Cave’s mystique. In fact, filmmakers Jane Pollard and Iain Forsyth laid out their intention to subvert in an interview with The Guardian: “The thing that seems so kind of prevalent in contemporary music docs is that they’re all about getting behind something, revealing something, taking away the mask. … The important thing for us was not breaking the mythology.” Diverging from standard practice, the film simply assumes the viewer’s familiarity with Cave’s oeuvre. There is no delving into the source of his mix of blues, rock, murder ballads and punk; no timeline of his many bands (Birthday Party, Bad Seeds, et. al.); no talking heads exploring his influences. Throughout it all, Cave is his impeccable bespoke-suited self, no hair out of place.

Instead, we see a fictional “day in the life” (roughly his 20,000th, as he was 54-ish at time of filming) of the cadaverous rocker from Wangaratta. In this gleaming fictional interpretation of Cave’s daily life, he wakes up, visits a therapist, visits longtime friend and bandmate Warren Ellis, visits his archive (where three white-gloved employees handle his every school photo, journal scribble and naked-lady doodle with reverence) and drives around Brighton musing on his relationships. The artifice makes a space for Cave to articulate his process in scripted voice-over, but it prevents any unintended conclusions on the part of the audience.

But none of this is a bad thing. Cave, after all, is a consummate artist with a highly developed aesthetic. Pollard and Forsyth’s most brilliant contrivance may be those driving scenes set in Cave’s vintage Jaguar – a selection of people from Cave’s past (Kylie Minogue, with whom he recorded his only pop hit; Ray Winstone, who starred in the first film Cave wrote; ex-bandmate Blixa Bargeld, whose appearance will enthrall Cave fans) show up in the car for philosophical, Cave-centric conversations. Eventually the viewer becomes aware that this is merely a cinematic device meant to visually represent a practice we all indulge in: holding long imaginary tête-à-têtes inside our heads, often as a way to work out our own feelings about some past or future conflict.

And so Cave’s final conclusion serves doubly, both as a blueprint for his inextricably entwined life and art and as one for the film: “This shimmering space where imagination and reality intersect, this is where all love and tears and joy exist. This is the place. This is where we live.” (available on DVD/ Blu-ray, and for rental on iTunes, Amazon and VOD)

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