20,000 days on earth: Nick Cave, the cannibal

Article published on Feb. 17, 2014
Article published on Feb. 17, 2014

"Once you have un­der­stood a song, it's not of much in­ter­est any­more." What is a day in the life like for Nick Cave, the demigod of po­etic Al­ter­na­tive Rock? In 20,00 Days on Earth (2013) we watch Cave sing and re­flect, get to laugh about Nina Si­mone and mar­vel at the Aus­tralian mu­si­cian's enig­matic nut­ti­ness. Film re­view

"I could con­trol the weather with my mood back then. I just couldn't con­trol my moods, you know." While the half mo­rose, half pen­sive Nick Cave swag­gers under the rainy skies of the south­ern Eng­lish town of Brighton, seag­ulls mew over­head. Walk­ing down the board­walk with his black suit, shoul­der­length hair and thick gold rings, he comes across as an alien who's just come on a visit to Earth. But if any­thing, he looks more like a can­ni­bal: "Of the kind with big lips, high cheek­bones and a bone through the nose." He's lasted 19,999 days on Earth, but now that the 20,000th day has passed, he's no longer human.  

What does Nick Cave do when he's not on stage?

How ex­actly mu­si­cian and pri­vate cit­i­zen Nick Cave spends this fic­ti­tious 20,000th day is told by Jane Pol­lard and Iain Forsyth in their doc­u­men­tary 20,000 Days on Earth (2013). The film's script, which in­ter­weaves the life of the mu­si­cian with his songs, poems and mem­o­ries, was writ­ten in part by Cave him­self. It's ar­guable how much of a doc­u­men­tary it ac­tu­ally is, but it's the po­etic qual­ity of the texts that el­e­vates this por­trait to a mas­ter­piece. One ex­am­ple is when Cave meets up with his bearded band­mate War­ren Ellis from the Bad Seeds and re­flects on a con­cert with Nina Si­mone: "That night, Nina was in a re­ally bad mood. All she re­ally wanted was cham­pagne, co­caine and sausages." Be­fore start­ing to per­form, she stuck her piece of gum to the con­cert grand, which Ellis later peeled off to save for pos­ter­ity.

Sto­ries like these make 20,000 Days on Earth more than just a nar­ra­tive of the artis­tic life of Cave, who was born in 1957 in the Aus­tralian town of War­rackn­abeal. For Pol­lard and Forsyth it's more about giv­ing Cave a cin­e­matic plat­form through which he and his music can be re­flected in all their po­et­i­cal highs and lows. Cave's mono­logues and stu­dio record­ings are in­ter­rupted by di­a­logues with mu­si­cal com­pan­ions, among which are Blixa Bargeld and Kylie Minogue, while archivists rum­mage through ma­te­r­ial from the Nick Cave Col­lec­tion from the Arts Cen­tre Mel­bourne. Sur­pris­ingly, Nick Cave, who oc­ca­sion­ally re­flects about the "god­like qual­i­ties" of the rock mu­si­cian, doesn't come across as pre­ten­tious at all. 

Im­por­tant Shit and bril­liantly ec­cen­tric song­writ­ing

Out of his "im­por­tant shit" 20,000 Days on Earth weaves a ta­pes­try of a deep thinker who de­lights in metaphors and po­etic speech, hacks away at sto­ries on his type­writer every morn­ing and who even finds the time to write songs. Ac­cord­ing to Nick Cave, life and music are al­ways about the retelling of a story, about the mythologiz­ing of mem­o­ries and their elab­o­ra­tion through music: "Once you have un­der­stood a song, it's not of much in­ter­est any­more." Just as grip­ping are the scenes where Cave sits with his band­mates from the Bad Seeds, im­pro­vises with War­ren Ellis or con­ducts a French chil­dren's choir. Once one pic­tures these im­ages while lis­ten­ing to the songs from the album Push the Sky Away (2013), the music be­gins to seem more thought-out and or­ga­nized.

The em­pha­sis clearly lies on the cur­rent Nick Cave, while his bi­o­graph­i­cal and mu­si­cal past only flicker past us. In one take, for ex­am­ple, he re­flects his child­hood in a staged con­ver­sa­tion with the psy­cho­an­a­lyst Dar­ian Leader, who is won­der­fully stereo­typed with his metal-rimmed glasses. His Lon­don days too cur­dle into anec­dotes, which re­volve around meet­ing his wife Susie: "Back then, I was a junkie, but went to church every Sun­day morn­ing. I'd lis­ten to what the priest had to say, then I went to Por­to­bello Road to score. That seemed right: some­thing good bal­anced by some­thing bad." But then Susie saved him from him­self: "She told me that I was doing some­thing dan­ger­ous and po­ten­tially life haz­ardous. I then had to promise to never go to church again."

Al­though Nick Cave ap­pears in 20,000 Days on Earth as mu­si­cian, au­thor and actor in all his artis­tic prowess, the film is re­flected well enough to not drift into the ha­gio­graphic: "You have to rec­og­nize your lim­i­ta­tions. Be­cause these lim­i­ta­tions make you the won­der­ful cat­a­stro­phe that you prob­a­bly are." But Nick Cave's fic­tious 20,000th day on Earth must have been a good one, be­cause his cat­a­strophic side is hardly seen on his strolls through Brighton. Those who don't like him or his music or those who ex­pect difini­tive an­swers might not like this film. Why won't Nick Cave eat roasted eel with whole grain pasta? And why does Miley Cyrus drift like a ghost through one of his new songs? In 20,000 Days on Earth, ques­tions like these re­main unan­swered.

But this wouldn't fit Nick Cave's con­cept of re­al­ity any­way, given that he has lit­tle in­ter­est for the things he un­der­stands: "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." Cave surely pulls this off when he sweeps across the stage per­form­ing his song Ju­bilee Street in one of the last scenes, dressed in a glit­tery shirt. Whether mon­ster, alien or can­ni­bal, Nick Cave seems to be suited to any­thing that's out of the or­di­nary. He could prob­a­bly even sport a bone pierc­ed through his nose.

CA­FE­BA­BEL BER­LIN BEI DER 64. BER­LI­NA­LE

We love films! You can get our daily up­dates di­rectly through our mag­a­zine or through Berlin.​Babel.​Blog und @Cafeba­bel­Ber­lin. Look for­ward to grip­ping film re­views, in­ter­views with undis­cov­ered stars and lots of pho­tos from around the Berli­nale Palace.