There's a scene in 20,000 Days on Earth in which Nick Cave chauffeurs Kylie Minogue around Brighton in a black 1980s Jaguar XJ as she reflects back on having first met him. The front passenger seat is left open for us, the audience, as an invitation into a music documentary that's not quite real. In fact, everything you see has been constructed and the car you're in is more like a dream. Though the ambitious film is artistically pieced together and wrapped in fiction by Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard—and co-written by Cave himself—it's actually the most beautifully honest reflection of art's transformative power you may ever see.
If you're not familiar with Nick Cave, here's a very quick run-down: musician, songwriter, poet, screenwriter, occasional actor, composer, author, etc. The 56-year-old Australian musician has been making music since he was sixteen under several different band names—starting with The Boys Next Door and The Birthday Party, and then settling on Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (with a side project called Grinderman thrown in the mix)—so when someone calls his artistry "beyond comparison, beyond genre, beyond dispute," they mean it.
Charting Cave's 20,000 day on earth, the film moves with him in a dream as he wakes up in the morning and goes about his day. While narrating, he meets with a therapist, takes a strange ride with Ray Winstone, talks with Kylie Minogue about her fears, visits an archive of his life as a clever way to look back at his career, heads to Warren Ellis' for lunch, and finally talks with Blixa Bargeld about why Blixa left the Bad Seeds in 2003—all while writing music for his newest record Push the Sky Away.
"Songwriting is about counterpoint. Like letting a child into the same room as a Mongolian psychopath or something," narrates Cave, who has epitomized both extremes throughout his long career.
20,000 Days on Earth is an ode to mystery and a tough film to explain. Much like some of the world's best novels, the documentary (which won two awards at Sundance) uses fiction as a way to tell a deeper truth about what goes into creating an artistic persona. Not only do fans get to feel like a fly on the wall in Cave's office, the film looks amazing—from the incredibly detailed production design that evokes the feeling of film noir to the emotionally overwhelming concert footage that pulls the themes together.
The usually guarded artist is surprisingly open throughout the film, but that's not to say he lays himself on a table for inspection. Thought he chats with a therapist about sensitive issues (like losing his father as a teenager and his deep fear of memory loss) every word is thoughtfully considered before spoken. Instead of trying to strip the elusive Cave down to the sum of his parts, the film actually protects the persona he's worked so hard to build through his music. That said, the film is a treasure trove of insights into the Australian artist and when he talks about the transcendent superhuman state he reaches during live performances, you don't have to suspend belief because you actually see it happen at the film's climactic live performance of Jubilee Street. You can see the moment he ceases to be just a man.
"This shimmering space where imagination and reality intersect. Where all love and tears and joy exist. This is the place. This is where we live," says Cave.
I could wax poetic about the film until I've exhausted all adjectives in the English language, but nothing will match what it feels like to experience it. By imbuing the inherently discordant worlds of fact and fiction with an imaginative consonance, 20,000 Days on Earth transforms the medium of documentary filmmaking in much the same way Cave does for the world of music.
While 20,000 Days on Earth isn't officially released in the US and UK until September 19 (August 21 in Australia and New Zealand, and November for the rest of Europe), the movie is being screened all over North America and the UK. And if you're lucky enough, the screening closest to you just may be one that Nick Cave himself is attending to answer questions and give a super rare solo piano performance. Though the ticket will be steeper, trust someone who went to the screening in Los Angeles at the Egyptian Theatre on July 10 and get to that screening. I may not have had the nerve to ask him a question myself, sitting not 10 feet away from him, for fear that simply making eye contact would render me without voice, but you don't have to repeat my mistake.
Check out the screening dates for 20,000 Days on Earth below.
- Sunday, 20th, July Alamo Drafthouse Ritz, Austin, TX
- Monday, 21st, July Alamo Drafthouse Ritz, Austin, TX
- Thursday, 24th, July Zeitgeist Theater, New Orleans, LA
- Sunday, 27th, July Trocadero Theater, Philadelphia, PA
- Friday, 1st, August Phi Centre, Montreal, QC (inc. conversation and rare solo performance from Nick Cave)
- Monday, 4th, August Florence Gould Hall Theater, New York, NY (inc. conversation and rare solo performance from Nick Cave)
- Wednesday, 13th, August, 9.00 pm Somerset House
- Wednesday, 17th, September, Barbican + Live Event with Nick Cave (launch event that will be broadcast to 150 participating UK theaters)