‘20,000 Days on Earth’ Review: Nick Cave Reflects on Life, and It’s Stunning

By  · Published on September 17th, 2014

Corniche Pictures

As if by magic, music somehow repeatedly allows movies to get away with things that wouldn’t work in any other context. Musicals regularly violate all rules of social behavior, featuring characters suddenly engaged in exquisitely choreographed yet seemingly spontaneous song and dance. Film scores lend scenes emotional weight unmatched by the actors’ performances alone. And Hollywood makes the same stale musical biopic time and again because, no matter how predictable they get, there’s something eternally gratifying about seeing landmark musicians perform, even if embodied by impersonators with Oscar gold twinkling in their eyes.

The unique opportunities provided by music is key to what makes such an unabashedly navel-gazing film like 20,000 Days on Earth work. Rather than provide the hagiographic approach to a single musician so common in contemporary music documentaries, 20,000 Days on Earth stages its portrait of Australian punk-goth-multihyphenate Nick Cave as a lyrical autobiography enamored with the expressive possibilities of cinema, dancing across the supposed boundaries between narrative and non-fiction filmmaking. Directed by Ian Forsyth and Jane Pollard, and written by Forsyth, Pollard, and Cave himself, 20,000 Days on Earth is a beautifully shot piece of film poetry that ruminates on the practical implications of the highly unusual way of living that is rock stardom.

After a montage of images taken supposedly from throughout Cave’s life, the film opens on Cave’s 20,000th day on earth (to clarify, that places him in his mid-fifties). Cave spends this supposedly ordinary day – significant only by its numeric power – driving along the highways of Brighton, England, waxing philosophic with famous friends like Ray Winstone and Kylie Minogue, engaging in studio sessions for The Bad Seeds’ 2013 album Push the Sky Away, navigating a press interview that at times resembles an appointment with a psychoanalyst, performing at a concert, and, in perhaps the film’s strongest moments, exploring his lifetime trove of ephemera in his (true-to-life) Museum of Important Shit. The latter moments find Cave examining the projection of an old tour photo (in which a band member gets peed on by a fan) as if he were Jim Garrison, taking the Zapruder film forever back and to the left in Oliver Stone’s JFK.

If this doesn’t sound like it adds up to much, narratively-speaking, you’re absolutely right. But 20,000 Days on Earth isn’t interested in propelling a narrative forward, but rather using its “life in a day” conceit to stop time and examine it closely. Rather than identifying himself as a musician, Cave repeatedly asserts his identity as a writer. He is thus perpetually in a state of reflection, and memory is an ever-present subject of the film if not its unifying theme, following its protagonist’s myriad observations of life that could just as easily lend themselves to a song, a screenplay, or a tacit self-admission during a filmed interview.

Cave is a seasoned screenwriter, having penned many of fellow Aussie John Hillcoat’s film, most notably the exquisite Outback-set neo-western The Proposition. Cave’s command of written and spoken language gives the film substance that matches the intensity and intimacy of his music – it invites the viewer to not only observe Cave’s life, but to inhabit his psychological space. And as a self-biographer and observer, Cave is characteristically idiosyncratic, building and recreating his memories from seemingly small moments and otherwise expendable pop culture references. He is also a remarkably sober as a wordsmith and author of this cinematic memoir, and this aspect relieves 20,000 Days of Earth of the many romantic clichés that haunt musical biographies, fiction and non-fiction.

This isn’t a predictable rise-and-fall-and-rise narrative. Sure, there is rock ’n’ roll, as there are brief insights into the glamour of fame and wealth, and memory’s residue of times both wilder and darker. But beyond its visual flare and unique approach to its subject, 20,000 Days on Earth deserves commendation for producing something hardly available elsewhere in rock movies: a frank, straightforward, untortured depiction of popular fame and success. For example, Cave opens the film with a narration about the unique relationship a wife would have to a songwriting husband: she inevitably becomes the breadth of his work, caricatured, exaggerated, and even bastardized through the mechanisms of his musical expression. This is not an admission of a fraught marriage, but an explanation of How We Make This Shit Work. And between his conversations with his interviewer and celebrity friends about life performance and songwriting, never does Cave suggest that fame has somehow warped or changed his sense of self or his relationship to music – he simply explains, in evocative detail, how he does what he does.

One of the first shots in the film features a shirtless Cave meditating on his reflection throughout a wall of bathroom mirrors, a sequence that directly references David Bowie’s narrative film debut in Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth. Bowie’s career notoriously the many ways that fame segments and abstracts identity, or how fame produces multiple, competing ideas of an individual. The Man Who Fell to Earth contributed to Bowie’s career-long project by having him embody, non-musically, his best-known musical creation: the alien rock star Ziggy Stardust.

Despite this early homage, Cave and 20,000 Days on Earth aren’t concerned with the resonant theme of fame as alienation. Despite the film’s laudably inventive and heightened style, rock stardom is not presented as an abstraction, a higher plane of living, a tragic relinquishing of privacy, or a superficial state of being in need of mystification – it’s the reality of Cave’s life, and a reality that creates an inseparability from his art. Nick Cave the person and Nick Cave the rock star have been unified too long for one to disentangle the other. This cohesive Nick Cave, embodying all these things at once, is what the film so stunningly chooses to explore. And in witnessing the fusing of his life and art throughout 20,000 Days on Earth, Nick Cave proves a rich place to be for a day.

The Upside: A gorgeously stylized poem of Cave’s life.

The Downside: Inherently slight.

On the Side: In addition to writing several of John Hillcoat’s films, Cave was reportedly hired by Russell Crowe to write a sequel to Gladiator that the studio rejected.

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