The struggle to write convincingly about death is one that Nick Cave – veteran of 16 studio albums with his band The Bad Seeds – has always come out on top of. Erudite, sophisticated, sexy; the 58-year-old Australian seems to drift somewhere above the world, seeing it from a brutally clear perspective.
But, in this documentary, Cave is often lost for words, as he describes to director Andrew Dominik the trauma he and his family have experienced following the death of his son. Arthur Cave was just 15 when he fell from a cliff in Brighton in July 2015. That’s the kind of tragedy that no narrative – even the preternaturally dark ones that Nick Cave deals in – could ever predict or make sense of.
Dominik has worked with Cave before, notably on his 2007 film The Assassination of Jesse James. Cave scored the film along with fellow Bad Seed Warren Ellis, creating eeriely sad soundscapes for Dominik’s sepia vision of the death of an American icon.
Here, the tables are turned. It’s Dominik who builds visuals around Cave’s sorrowful music. Much of the running time is taken up with performances by Cave of songs from the new Bad Seeds album, ‘Skeleton Tree’; almost all shot in black and white, on a complicated 3D camera. These are visceral, gut-wrenching takes that bring you face-to-face with grief. The set up is disarmingly simple – just stark white lights and Cave’s dark features and the camera circling his piano, constantly.
In between songs, Cave provides a voiceover. Gloomily summing up the facts. “I’m losing my voice. Just file it under lost things: my voice; my iPhone; my judgement.” The process of putting together this record has been difficult, the film equally so. And the fitful nature of the action says something profound about storytelling. When it comes down to it, life does not make any kind of linear sense. It is not slick.
That the film doesn’t really go anywhere is partly the point. But, it does begin to drag, as repetition sets in. Still, there’s deep, if bittersweet pleasure to be had from observing the inner workings of possibly the most enigmatic man on the planet. Altogether, a moving portrait of a man brought down to earth.