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20,000 Days on Earth

The film opens with a bank of screens, something like what you’d see from a series of security cameras. As a number in the corner of the picture quickly increments, the pictures in the screens change. Once we get over 10,000, some of them become familiar as being from Nick Cave videos. It’s funny how the ones you remember best also feature someone else – there’s Nick and Blixa Bargeld doing the Weeping Song, there’s Kylie, here’s PJ Harvey.

We then see Cave’s hand hitting the alarm button. It’s 7 o’clock and apparently he’s been sleeping in his trousers. He tells us in voiceover that this is 20,000th day on Earth (doing the maths so you don’t have to, that would make him pushing 55). If so, it’s a strange sorts of day that manages to combine a psychiatrist appointment in Brighton, a visit to the Nick Cave archive and a concert at the Sydney Opera House.

I guess it’s refreshing to see a film about a singer which is open about its artifice. This is not just a film about Nick Cave, he is also one credited as being one of the writers. The fact that its all scripted leaves some of the dialogue to be a little stilted – not least the “casual conversation” with his violin player Warren Ellis. But we are aware from the start that we shouldn’t believe everything we hear.

Take the discussion with Cave’s psychiatrist Darian Leader, a real psychiatrist who Cave apparently first met on the set of the film. Leader asks him about his first memory of his father, to which Cave goes off on a tale of being read chunks of Lolita and being told about Nabakov’s use of alliteration. Whether it’s true or not, how you react to this scene will give you a good idea of whether you’ll go with the film as a whole.

Cave is filmed driving around with former collaborators, with the conversations ranging from the halfway interesting to the somewhat banal. Ray Winstone asks about artistic motivation and whether he doesn’t just consider giving it all up. Kylie Minogue recounts a conversation she had with Michael Hutchence. Blixa Barfeld recalls leaving Cave’s band the Bad Seeds, although it all seems to have been without any interesting animosity.

If this were all there is, you’d be forgiven for wondering what the point is. Is it all an art school prank? And yet two things save the film from its own pomposity. One is that – as long as he stays the right side of pretentiousness – Cave is an interesting and articulate interviewee. He explains at length how the concept of an all-seeing God helps him make sense of his life, before pricking the bubble and saying that this only affects the artist “Nick Cave”. The real him doesn’t believe in this sort of God at all.

But the main thing that makes this really worth watching is the music. The film is in part a promotion of Cave’s “Push the Sky Away” album, which isn’t my favourite of his, but it does make the sensible choice of sticking with the better tracks. There is a fascinating rehearsal period where Ellis explains to a children’s choir – who, for some reason that makes sense to someone are French – how they can best realise Cave’s vision.

Pretty much the final scene is concert footage showing Cave on-stage with the audience in the palm of his hand. As the music carries on in the background, we see footage from different concerts of an increasingly young and heroin-addled Cave, looking dynamic and absolutely captivating. While the grown up Cave may be a little more sensible and pretentious, he still embodies this dynamism.

In the last year or so, Cave has made a number of ill-judged comments about culture boycotts and “cancel culture” which has not endeared himself to some people. It’s become a regular event to see facebook posts saying “I never liked him anyway”. This is not the sort of film to win over these people. It shows Cave as he would like us to see him, and does not attempt any hard sell to his doubters.

But if you like the music and believe that he is capable of coherent thought, there’s plenty in this film to relish. Cave is thoughtful and has plenty to say about his battle to realise his artistic vision. If you think that this vision has little to offer, you are provided with more than enough ammunition to scoff. But if you’re prepared to give Cave a hearing, you may just learn something.

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