20,000 Days on Earth

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UK Release Date 19th September 2014
Director Iain Forsyth, Jane Pollard
Starring Nick Cave
Runtime 97 Minutes
Certificate 15
Reviewer Si
Reviewed 1st October 2014

Another review, another chance to confess my apparently limitless ignorance. I know almost nothing about Nick Cave. Well, nothing beyond the fact that he’s an Aussie singer of some sort who once did something with Kylie. And I even got that song mixed up with another of her tunes (it’s Where the Wild Roses Grow apparently). Oh, and he wrote some movies. And produced soundtracks for dozens of movies. All the better to sit and watch a kind of documentary about the man himself.

20,000 Days on Earth isn’t really a documentary, but then, it isn’t really not a documentary. Kind of a partly narrated, partly scripted trip through Nick Cave’s thoughts whilst he grapples with marriage, fatherhood and middle age. Which might not sound like the most exciting way to spend an hour and a half of your hard won time but, as somebody who had absolutely no investment in Cave as a performer, I can say confidently, this is time very well spent.

Cave provides sporadic narration to his winding trip down memory lane, I don’t know if what he comes out with is lines from his music (I’m not that dedicated to start listening to it) but it certainly is poetic. Blessed with a wonderfully warm, slightly Aussie tinged voice, Cave wanders off on many tangents and comes up with many superbly quotable lines that a more competent journalist than me would have either remembered or thought to write down. Doesn’t matter, the point is that Cave isn’t really narrating a story or even a pretence at one. It’s more as if he stopped at points during the making of the movie, stared out the window and speculated randomly on whatever was passing his thoughts at the time.

If you are looking for direction, focus and urgency in your almost documentaries, this is the absolute wrong movie for you. Though, it has to be said, Cave is a very focussed individual. Arising at 7am every day and spending normal working hours sat at a typewriter, diligently typing with two fingers, he is the picture of a man who must control his demons in order to survive. After years of alcohol and drug abuse, Cave is now sober and very much in control of his life.

The movie opens on Cave, staring at his alarm clock, lying next to his wife (though actual footage of her is withheld). These kind of normality anchored bookmarks crop up frequently during the next 90 or so minutes. The rest of the movie revolves around Cave driving his wonderfully workmanlike Jaguar around Brighton in the drizzle, chatting to former collaborators (Ray Winstone, Blixa Bargeld and Kylie) whilst driving and bouncing between recording sessions and what appears to be an attempt to archive his past.

The recording sessions usually involve fellow Bad Seeds member Warren Ellis, a wonderfully opaque individual, perfectly at home either playing any instrument known to man or serving Cave cooked eels at his cliff top cottage. Other characters wander in and out of focus but for the most part this is purely a journey with Cave. We sit with him as he unloads on a therapist, chatting lucidly about his early experience with his father. The amount revealed is carefully controlled though, we are not going to unearth anything scandalous or particularly insightful here, this is very much the tale that Cave wants to tell. Which isn’t at all to suggest that he is hiding anything, it’s just that this is his journey and our focus will always be his focus. 

The sessions with his archivists are more illuminating. Cave’s sublime weather diary, written meticulously for years as an Australian trying to fathom the dull British weather, then stopping suddenly as twins arrive and sidetrack him. Before starting all over again a couple of years later. Cave’s experiences with oddball neighbours and his beginnings with violent crowds back in Oz with his first group The Birthday Party - never has a five minute analysis of a photo of somebody pissing on a band member been so entertaining.

20,000 Days on Earth clearly isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea. Cave fans will no doubt lap it up, there are more than enough words of wisdom and glimpsed session work here to complete a nice bonus DVD. For the rest of us? Indulge the man. Cave is undeniably talented and his dry, laconic, perceptive view of the world is well worth sinking into. Somehow he manages to veer away from sentiment and cliche and without necessarily saying anything revolutionary, his charming presence gently pulls you along, making you wonder just how you spend so much of your day thinking of nothing anywhere near as deep as this. “It’s important to know your limitations” Cave intones at one point, “they are what make you the wonderful mess you probably are”. I’ve completely miss-quoted that and proved his point at the same time. This is a beautifully meandering, thoughtful movie that easily transcends any thoughts of vanity.

Check out the trailer here.

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