20,000 Days on Earth
Written by Nick Cave, Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard
Directed by Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard
You don’t have to be a Nick Cave aficionado to appreciate the brilliant new documentary 20,000 Days on Earth. In fact, you don’t need to know a single song from his musical catalog. This isn’t a love letter to one performer, but to the universality of creativity; where one idea can sprout and prosper and die, only to be transformed by another creative liar. By melding narration, music, memories and ghosts, the filmmakers have created a classic documentary about the artistic process.
Though Nick Cave has certainly earned the privilege of self-indulgence, you won’t find any pretentiousness or posing in 20,000 Days on Earth. The lanky Australian has been warping genres and challenging conventions since bursting onto the punk scene in the 1970’s. In bands ranging from The Birthday Party to the Bad Seeds, Cave’s music has remained mordantly self-conscious while still managing to feel spontaneous and uncluttered. This despite all the clutter he has accumulated throughout the course of his tumultuous life. The man has his own personal archive of photos, recordings and memorabilia, after all.
When asked by psychoanalyst, Darian Leader, what his greatest fear is, Cave’s response is quick and decisive: “Losing my memory.” To Cave, memory is the source of all inspiration. A story, an object, an angry sky menacing his adopted town of Brighton… all become artistic fodder to a man obsessed with harnessing the transformative power of raw human emotion. And so we see the crystalline logic behind the making of this film. On the surface, directors, Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard, have set about tracking Cave on his 20,000th day on the planet (an eccentric anniversary that is so Nick Cave). Their sights are set much deeper, however, with Cave’s daily routine serving as the springboard inside a man with ferocious appetites and vivid memories.
Yes, we get the usual cavalcade of friends, current collaborators and former bandmates paying their respects, but everything remains conversational and tangential. Their presence, like everything else in Cave’s life, seems completely random, and yet, absolutely essential. Whether it’s musing with his friend, Ray Winstone, about the perceived deficiencies of age, or discussing performance philosophies with Kylie Minogue, Cave is a cannibal of experiences and anecdotes and pregnant pauses. This film is his attempt to capture all those moments from his first 20,000 days. To create from memories and ghosts a narrative through which we might understand what makes him tick.
Part confession, part exploration, Cave seems to be revealing his psyche not only to the audience, but to himself as he speaks frankly about his childhood, drug abuse and personal disappointments. He lingers over a formative experience with his father, who reads his young son a passage from Nabokov’s Lolita to illustrate the power of the written word. In these stories and recollections, you can see the machinery of creation taking shape in Cave’s life; from memory comes the narrative, the narrative fuels the performance, and the performance enables the transformation.
Indeed, Cave is obsessed with transformation. He talks at length with frequent collaborator, Warren Ellis, about the importance of letting ideas spontaneously take shape and overwhelm the creative process. This mentality permeates the very structure of 20,000, which snakes from voiceover narration (Cave sounds rather like a hardboiled noir anti-hero), to live performance, to transitory vignettes in the car. Each memory or story fuels, and is informed by, the songs interspersed throughout. We see the connections without having some ‘talking head’ tell us the score. We discover how one man transforms himself into a creative conduit for his own life narrative. It’s brave and terrifying and, ultimately, inspirational.
20,000 Days on Earth is essential viewing for anyone interested in the creative process. Nick Cave’s music might not be your thing, but his unrelenting artistic spirit easily transcends personal preference. The quest to “create a space where imagination and reality intersect” has fueled his fevered visions for 20,000 days. Watching this remarkable film might just inspire you to embark upon your own quest.