By most accounts, Nick Cave is a particular taste, only occasionally entering pop culture by covering iconic songs or collaborating with pop superstars like Kylie Minogue. Yet the man who “sings every line like a Batman villain” thrives on film. His idiosyncratic brand of storytelling songwriting morphs to the occasion.
It’s a strange phenomenon of film – that particular songs about particular experiences can become so universal in the right filmmaker’s hands. But this isn’t merely a songwriter whose early work is continually reembraced and reimagined like Leonard Cohen. Nick Cave is a ghost who haunts cinema with his melancholy and anger, and a noticeable presence within it – creating, scoring and performing for the camera.
20,000 Days on Earth, out this week, reinforces his image as the cinematic preacher, depicting 24 fictional hours of his life, but his life on screen stretches much farther – especially in these 7 glorious uses of his music and presence.
Wings of Desire
In Wim Wenders’s 1987 film, the angel Gamiel walks the streets of West Berlin, his world black and white until an angelic trapeze artist inspires him to not just observe, but become human. To see isn’t to understand; he must experience it.
His world is now in color, and he follows her into a bar where Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds are performing. The carnivalesque music seamlessly weaves with the narrative and somehow, Cave manages to both steal the scene and disappear into it. He’s a fierce performer, yet feels like another player in a larger puzzle as Gamiel’s fellow angel invisibly stands next to him on stage, quietly watching.
Cave’s relationship to film often feels preternatural. He isn’t just a crafty songwriter whose music is loved by filmmakers – he’s a screenwriter whose forays into cinema are often thrilling in ways a typical film is not. It took the musician only three weeks to write The Proposition and challenge everything we know about gritty westerns.
Cave doesn’t change the format of the genre; just the protective sheen. You can feel the dirt and sweat of this world, the dangers and realities it presented, and the questionable motives of the “civilized” – of those caught in a new and foreign world. Yet it’s a western through and through, bouncing between beauty and pain, irresistible charisma and gut-wrenching violence. In other words, a pretty perfect embodiment of the form and Cave’s particularly engaging approach of words and music.
Movies can’t resist “Red Right Hand.” It’s popped up in everything from Dumb and Dumber to Hellboy, yet none use it to the same perfect effect as Scream. The track from “Let Love In” is a perfectly wrapped gift for the horror comedy series.
It’s a dark tune exploring a man of nightmares and dreams. It warns of the danger that lurks, but does so with a kitschy allure and wink in its eye. It’s Scream’s soulmate, playing with the danger, the fun and our need to watch both. The song warns of giving the dangerous man your attention, of being a microscopic cog in his catastrophic plan – while knowing full well that no one can resist.
He Died with a Felafel in His Hand
“Why is 3 o’clock in the morning always the hour of choice to put on Nick Cave, get depressed, and kill yourself? What’s wrong with the middle of the day when everyone’s awake and ready to call an ambulance?”
In Richard Lowenstein’s Aussie film, Noah Taylor’s Danny wakes to the sounds of “The Mercy Seat.” It’s loud and angry, and leads him to save Sam from her attempted suicide. In just a few minutes, the song is morphed over and over. It’s the alarm for Danny, the angry dirge for Sam, the wry joke made to lighten the mood, and finally, the soft and melancholic background to the pair’s bonding. The same angry belting that made him wake, and spoke to Sam’s loud pain, is now soft and melancholic, delicately sung in the background as he comforts her.
Romance & Cigarettes
“I almost love you,” James Gandolfini says in John Turturro’s quirky Romance & Cigarettes as he breaks up with Kate Winslet. “Killing me softly,” she says, and you can start to expect the beat of The Fugees. Instead, their breakup turns into a weird battle of sexual innuendo, and he throws her in the nearby lake to stop her desperate sexual advances, allowing her to, of course, sadly sing underwater.
It’s something perfectly Cavesian, as it bounces between emotions. What’s ridiculous becomes serious with Cave’s lyrics about a drowned murder victim. But this time, they’re not the words he usually sings with his typical male swagger; it’s his words through German singer Ute Lemper and Winslet’s Tula. The moments aren’t her last, but they’re dark, especially as Gandolfini’s Nick stands above her and doesn’t try to help.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
One could imagine Cave singing any number of his songs in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. But while he scores the film with Warren Ellis, and appears in the film, he doesn’t perform his own work. Playing a traveling musician in a bar, he belts out the American folk song “Jesse James.”
The song was destined to appear, not just because the tune is about James, but because it talks about the man as a hero shot down by the “coward” Robert Ford. Cave strums his guitar, and strolls through the bar, singing about the coward. He sings at faces, walking back and forth without realizing that Ford is there, trying to stay composed.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt. 1
Finally, there is the film no one would have ever thought would include an important scene set to Cave’s music. In the first Deathly Hallows film, Hermione and Harry are struggling on their quest, and Harry silently pulls her to the middle of the floor as Cave’s “O’Children” gets louder and louder. He takes the Horcrux, and pulls her into a dance that mingles melancholy with fleeting levity.
The song was so unexpected that the LA Times even wrote a piece to explain how it came to be. As the piece explains, it was a song the music supervisor had “hoarded” during the dissolution of his marriage, one that felt like “a love letter to my kids.” David Yates had wanted something that offered varying emotions, yet wasn’t so recognizably from this world like Radiohead or Oasis. Once again, Cave was the key, the link between the magical and the real, much like Wings of Desire.
Related Topics: Music