20,000 Days on Earth – Film Review

A gripping portrait of Nick Cave that simultaneously mythologises and debunks its subject matter

“I had to speed-read your biography!” says Kylie Minogue sheepishly, admitting to Nick Cave she had no idea who he was before their duet on ‘Where The Wild Roses Grow’. “Ah, you read that?” he replies with a quizzical eyebrow. “But none of it was true.” It’s one of many slyly humourous moments to grace 20,000 Days On Earth, Jane Pollard and Iain Forsyth’s poetic ‘day in a life’ documentary about the legendary Bad Seeds frontman. The directors blend fact and fiction to create a portrait of the musician that simultaneously mythologises and debunks its subject matter, extending far beyond the faux-intimacy that passes for truth in so many films of this type.

As such, we hear Cave wax lyrical about the transformative power of song with eloquence that will resonate even with sceptics of the theatrically gloomy songwriter’s work. But we also get to see him, suavely cadaverous in his tailored suit, sipping tea from a Wills and Kate wedding mug, ad-libbing to Lionel Richie and scrawling dirty pictures in his notebook while waiting to see a shrink.

The scenes featuring the psychologist, ‘played’ by real-life practitioner Darian Leader, offer gripping insight into the 56-year-old’s tumultuous backstory, though perhaps not all of them true. He recalls listening with awe to his father – who died when Cave was young – reading him the opening chapter of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita when he was 13. Of his years as a junkie in London, meanwhile, he says: “I would wake up and need to score. And the first thing I’d do is go to church.”

True? Maybe, but what Cave and the filmmakers are attempting to uncover goes deeper than humdrum biography – rather, as Cave himself says, “It’s about what lies be­neath the sur­face of re­al­ity, like the humps of a sea mon­ster. The goal in music and per­form­ing is to tempt that mon­ster to the sur­face.”

Dream-like shots of the singer driving around his adopted Brighton hometown- with former collaborators like Kylie, Ray Winstone and Blixa Bargeld mysteriously appearing in the passenger seat – are mixed with extended clips of Cave writing and performing in the studio.

One great scene has Bad Seed Warren Ellis narrating an anecdote about Nina Simone, champagne, coke and sausages. Another deftly humorous touch sees Cave sharing pizza with his kids in front of the telly. It’s a tender moment, until you realise the film is Scarface, and the scene cuts from the sound of Tony Montana’s homicidal ravings to a violent Bad Seeds performance. The overall effect is of a gripping portrait, not just of Cave himself, but of the animating spark that inspires all the best art. No mean feat, but 20,000 Days On Earth pulls it off in style.