As of October 7 I have seen 20,000 Days on Earth, the recent docudrama about Australian singer-songwriter and post-punk icon Nick Cave, twice. Since first seeing the movie at the Film Forum on September 25, I have recommended it to all my friends, sharing the dark and occasionally deranged – but sometimes also fun! – sounds of Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds. (I’m not entirely sure if that has helped or scared off potential viewers.) If you live in the New York City area and you have not yet ventured to the Film Forum for this particular motion picture, you still have time: 20,000 Days on Earth will be playing until Thursday, October 16.
And why might you want to see the film? It’s difficult to come up with an answer that would fit every moviegoer. For some it might be beneficial to be familiar with Cave’s discography prior to seeing a film which spends a fair amount of time describing and displaying his songwriting and recording processes. “Higgs Boson Blues,” for example, might not be to everyone’s taste. Some might not “get” the style. If you’re familiar with Cave’s earlier band, the raucous group The Birthday Party, you’ll find that the film does not showcase that era. The film does not dwell on clips of Cave’s previous stage and music video performances, except for brief flashes in the montages in the opening credits and toward the end of the film, nor does the film burden itself with talking head segments. For newcomers, the film might serve as an exciting gateway to exploring the rest of Cave’s career, both musical and otherwise. (I recently read his second novel, The Death of Bunny Munro, which is by turns grotesque, comic and heartrending.)
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds perform “From Her to Eternity” in Wings of Desire.
I fall more into the second camp; I have been aware of Cave for nearly a decade, ever since seeing the band in their one scene in Wim Wenders’ romantic odyssey Wings of Desire (1987). I was reminded of how great that scene is when I saw the film again a few months ago. Because of my reconnection with Wings, my interest was piqued when I heard about 20,000 Days on Earth. Seeing the trailer at the Film Forum confirmed my wanting to see the movie. I listened to a couple of the Bad Seeds’ albums before seeing the film, just to get my feet wet, but I was not familiar with the music used in the film (all from the 2013 album Push the Sky Away). I was nevertheless hooked, thanks not only to the magic of the songs but also to the innovative ways in which directors Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard put the narrative together.
Even more than the music, the film is about the influences of time and memory on growth and day-to-day life. How much can someone else’s music, literature and other types of art inform the shaping of our minds? How often do we care about the recollection of a person from a specific place and time more than we care about what the person is actually like now? How do we mythologize certain moments in our lives? If we could, would we ever want to “reinvent” ourselves? I see these questions as much wider-reaching than the usual topics brought up in musicians’ documentaries. They’re definitely considerations I have had for my own creative projects.
There’s also something riveting about capturing the rock god as simultaneously fantasy and reality. Such an image can be self-designed based on popular stars of the past and present (for Cave, it’s Elvis) and it may be thought that that is a façade which is not the same as the real person underneath the persona. Even so there is something very real in how the performer and the audience interact. Joy, sweat and tears – those of Cave, the other band members and the concertgoers – coalesce in the film’s thrilling finale. The songs “Stagger Lee,” performed at the club KOKO London, and “Jubilee Street” at the Sydney Opera House raise the volume to a thundering loudness, the music buzzing through your feet and pulsing through your head and heart. Astute viewers will take note that the film’s purported “day in the life” is pieced together from scenes in multiple staged locations in multiple countries (with the exception of the opening scene in Cave’s actual bedroom, I think all the other non-recording-studio interior and exterior locations were chosen for aesthetics and practical purposes), but that doesn’t dilute the film’s power. 20,000 Days on Earth is not merely about memorable lyrics and catchy melodies; it’s about getting into someone’s head – and whether that can even happen anyway when the subject tries his best to wear a metaphorical mask in front of the camera.