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Blu-ray Review - 20,000 Days on Earth

Documentary portrait of Nick Cave.

Directed by: Iain Forsyth, Jane Pollard

Featuring: Nick Cave, Susie Bick, Warren Ellis, Kylie Minogue, Ray Winstone




When I was a kid, Nick Cave was far too cool for the likes of me. He was the sort of popstar beloved of the older, hipper set; girls with florescent undercuts, and earnest lads with long hair and denim jackets. There was also something intimidating and cryptic about the music; too strange and exotic for my obtuse, poppy mind - I stuck with my Kylie records, and Mr. Cave and his Bad Seeds remained an obscurity to me.
One might imagine then that I would not be the target audience for Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard’s 20,000 Days on Earth. And, true, if I had not received a review copy, I would have probably overlooked the film. My loss: 20,000 Days on Earth is a work of art, and one of the best films of 2014, an original and visceral cinema experience.
20,000 Days on Earth is a semi-documentary, wherein we follow Cave through a day in his life as he knocks about his home town of Brighton. We see actual footage of the Bad Seeds practising, along with Cave writing and composing alone. These real-life sequences are interspersed with Cave’s frank session with a psychiatrist, a visit to the (incredible) archive of his life containing photos and video footage spanning his career, and the surprise of a few unexpected and delightful cameos.
Cave’s relationship with the medium of cinema is well established; he screen-wrote the recent Lawless (2012) and before that the incendiary The Proposition (2005). Cave’s music too (I’ve rapidly caught up) has a markedly cinematic dynamic; full on narrative structures featuring distinctive characters, soundtracked by symphonies of atmosphere and emotion. 20,000 Days on Earth is primarily about Cave’s relationship with this art; his motivation for making it, and the process of creation. The dressing of the film is pure bohemia; the piled books, poster collages and coils of wires that swirl from the various instruments that make up Cave’s living and working quarters are visual shorthands for his fecund, teeming imagination. Unlike the flat approach of many biopics, 20,000 Days on Earth is intensely cinematic, a natural development of Forsyth and Pollard’s style (the two are better known as artists). Cave characterises the process of song-writing as pitting ‘disparate elements against each other and letting the sparks fly’: this entropic procedure is reflected by the repeated vivid motifs of light and dark, black and white that chime throughout the film, like the finger picked notes from Warren Ellis’ guitar; most evident in the collection sequences wherein projected archive footage superimposes over Cave’s shadowed face, and culminating in the dawn breaking over Brighton pier in the film’s final, hopeful shot.
The title refers to Cave’s age, and is itself suggestive of life’s ultimate limits and impermanence. As the film progresses, it becomes clear that the meditations on creation and art, and the visualisations of light and dark, pertain to something deeper: a master rumination on life and death, of mortality and art’s permanence. At one point, Cave tells a boyhood anecdote involving running along a bridged train track towards the oncoming engine before leaping off into the water below at the last possible moment: the implicit challenge to death and fate seemingly inherent from a young age. Thus, Cave’s archive becomes a metaphor for this theme, a barrier to time’s arrow; in photos, Cave exists forever; his music immortal. Late in the film, none other than Kylie herself (reprising her raissoneur role from Moulin Rouge!) appears in the back of Cave’s car to discuss self-actualisation and fame with her Where the Wild Roses Grow co-star.
Among the artist as an old man pontifications, the potential for indulgence could be high, but such affectation is largely subverted. Partly because Cave, with his Droopy Dawg handsomeness, is such a beguiling figure, charming us with his tales and candid nature. But also due to the film’s humour, which is playful and very funny: at one point Ellis suggests Cave sounds like ‘Lionel Ritchie’ and the look on Cave’s face when Ray Winstone asks about his age is priceless. There is one sequence in the film (which I hope was spontaneous), where Cave, in the vocal booth, sings and dances alone, just going for it: and the image is one of simple and unqualified joy. When the film climaxes with a Bad Seeds performance in Sydney Opera House, the moment is incredibly uplifting and moving: because the film has led us so masterfully to its definitive conclusion: that art and music, and the celebration of it, transcends time’s tyranny, and laughs at death (buttressed by the sweet sequence of Cave and a couple of Cave juniors giggling at a family screening of Scarface).
For Cave fans, 20,000 Days on Earth is absolute nirvana. But even if you aren’t one of the cool kids, this is a film you will enjoy, and may even love. Cave’s life and work is used a springboard to wider themes and concepts which are universal: and the look of the film, a kaleidoscope assault of colour and imagery, displays a bravura ambition for the medium.
In the words of Jubilee Street, the song that closes and, indeed, steals the show:
Transforming… Vibrating… Glowing…
9/10
Extras:
A 15 minute making of that demystifies the fact/fiction interplay of the film, adding another level of meta (‘I’m playing one the fictional archivists, but ironically I am a real curator, pretending to be an archivist’) and politely skirting around the difficulties of working with the film’s star; ‘I think we’re beginning to get the best out of Nick [by] never asking too much…’. Quite interesting, as it gives a sense of the directors’ own creative purpose and methods when making this film, which is in many ways about the artistic process. 
There are also a bumper 30 minutes of extra scenes, which are comprised of more archive and interview sequences, several studio sessions, and a live performance featuring (huzzah) Kylie.
7/10(9/10 if you happen to be a Bad Seeds fan)


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