I suppose your enjoyment of the recent documentary-film 20,000 Days on Earth will depend on your opinion of its subject, Nick Cave: the Antipodean singer, songwriter, musician, novelist, scriptwriter, co-founder of the Birthday Party and leader and frontman of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.
If you regard him as the coolest Australian on the planet, if not the coolest human being on the planet, then 20,000 Days on Earth is definitely for you. If you’re less enamoured with Cave and his talents, you might conceivably regard the film as a pile of self-obsessed, self-aggrandising, self-indulgent and up-its-own-arse bollocks. Happily, I’m a member of the first camp and so I really liked the film. And in this post I’ll be singing its praises.
20,000 Days on Earth, which is directed by Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard (who co-wrote the script with Cave), purports to show the events in one day – presumably the 20,000th day – in the life of its subject as, mostly, he potters around his adopted hometown of Brighton. However, the truth is clearly being bent here. For example, during the film, we see Cave performing his songs, old ones like Stagger Lee and new ones like Higgs Boson Blues, in venues as far away as the Sydney Opera House. Now even someone with as iron a constitution as old Nick has would be hard-pressed to jet from Brighton to Sydney, sing Jubilee Street to an adoring audience, and jet back again in the space of one day; and then manage, with nary a grumble or yawn, to sit on the sofa with his two young sons, munch some pizza and enjoy a late-evening showing of Scarface with Al Pacino (“Say hello to my little friend!”), which is what happens near the end of the film. No, obviously, artistic licence is being deployed.
Indeed, it’s fun to speculate how much of 20,000 Days on Earth is actually real and not artistic licence – some of it, a little bit of it or none of it at all? We see Cave clamber out of bed in the morning and go to the bathroom, whilst getting a brief glimpse of Susie Bick, the model who is Nick’s missus. Later, we see him work both in his study and in the studio. And we also see him meet up and chat with the hirsute Warren Ellis, who’s been a Bad Seed since 1995 and has also collaborated with Cave on movie scores like The Proposition (2005), The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), The Road (2009) and Lawless (2012). But even this seemingly ordinary stuff is suspect.
The study where Cave does his writing, for example, looks rather too bohemian and glamorous, rather too much like where we’d imagine him to be doing his writing. He’s banging away at an old, manual typewriter, surrounded by stacks of books while pictures of iconic people (Elvis, Marilyn, etc.) adorn the walls behind him. Actually, you can see a picture of him at work in this too-good-to-be-true study on the movie poster.
(c) Corniche Pictures / BFI / Film4
(I saw 20,000 Days on Earth with a mate at the Ritzy Cinema in Brixton, in south London; and when we compared notes afterwards I declared that I wanted to have a study exactly like the one Nick Cave has in the film. My mate, however, wanted to have a house exactly like the one we see Warren Ellis living in – a pretty little structure located on a scenic stretch of the south English coast. Though I don’t know if his enthusiasm for the house extended to the wax replica of a severed hand that we glimpse lying on Warren’s kitchen table.)
Much of 20,000 Days on Earth, though, is obviously staged – in particular, the sequences that are designed to make Cave open up and talk about his past life, his hopes and fears, his artistic inspirations and so on. There are scenes where he visits a psychiatrist and talks candidly about his father and about what scares him most – which, without giving too much away, is something that’s understandably frightening for anyone with creative urges. There are scenes set in an imaginary archive devoted to Cave’s past life, where he explains the significance of photographs and other artifacts to the staff-members. And there are some slightly-ghostly sequences where Cave drives around in his car and people from his past simply materialise in his passenger seat and talk to him for a while.
Among these people-from-the-past are the Berlin musician Blixa Bargeld, who founded the industrial band Einsturzende Neubauten and who served as guitarist and backing vocalist in the Bad Seeds from 1983 to 2003; the somehow-inevitable Kylie Minogue (who sang a duet with Cave on the 1995 single Where the Wild Roses Grow, a song that culminates with Cave smashing in Kylie’s face with a rock); and actor Ray Winstone. I was a bit puzzled about why Ray Winstone should end up in the film until my mate pointed out to me that he and Cave had worked together on the excellent 2005 Australian-western The Proposition.
Informative though these in-car conversations are, I’d have liked a couple of other past Cave-collaborators to turn up too. It’d have been fascinating, for instance, to hear him have a blether with P.J. Harvey, who sang with him on the 1996 single Henry Lee. Mind you, for Cave, that might’ve been a little too painful – in the mid-1990s, Cave and Harvey had a brief but passionate affair and when Harvey called it off, supposedly, Cave was so upset that he wrote his next album about her, 1997’s The Boatman’s Call. (I’ve heard one cynic describe it as The Cave-man’s Bawl.) And I’m sure if an appearance had been made by ex-Pogue Shane McGowan, with whom Cave recorded a cover version of What a Wonderful World in 1992, the resulting conversation would have been entertaining, if not exactly structured.
While we’re on the subject of omissions, I was slightly disappointed too that no mention was made of Cave’s career as a novelist. 1989 saw the publication of And the Ass Saw the Angel, while twenty years later he wrote a second novel, The Death of Bunny Munro. In some ways the novels are as different as chalk and cheese, one being a Gothic epic set in the 1930s / 1940s American south, the other being a contemporary tale set in Brighton. In other ways, particularly in their themes of self-delusion and self-destruction, they’re very similar.
All in all, however, if you’re an admirer of Nick Cave, you should find 20,000 Days on Earth an honourable attempt to do justice to the remarkable life and talents of its subject. It gives you enough new insights into him to keep you satisfied while not – and this is important – stripping away too much of the mystique that makes him what he is. And incidentally, though I’ve never been to Brighton and though I’ve heard mixed reports about the modern-day state of the town, the final sequence where Cave stands on the nocturnal seafront, looking out to sea, makes the place look impressively phantasmagorical.
A quick word of recommendation for Brixton’s Ritzy Cinema. It seems to do a good job of combining the features of a normal, commercial cinema with the features of a specialised, art-house one. And last year, after Margaret Thatcher died, it gained some notoriety when local people celebrating the Iron Lady’s departure climbed up its façade and rearranged the letters on its hoarding – so that instead of spelling out the titles of the films currently showing, they spelled out the message MARGARET THATCHER’S DEAD LOL.
Now that’s what I like. A cinema that serves the needs of its local community in all sorts of ways.