The film 20,000 Days on Earth might sound like a 1950s low-budget sci-fi cult classic you’ve never seen, but actually it’s an unusual and vastly inventive document of the life and times of Australian rocker, poet, novelist, film composer, screenwriter, and all-around bon vivant Nick Cave. In their debut feature, installation artists and curators Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard collaborated closely with Cave on the film, mixing reality and fantasy as they follow Cave during a rather busy day. “Who knows their own story? Certainly it makes no sense when we are living in the midst of it,” Cave, who just turned fifty-seven, says in the deeply poetic voiceover narration he wrote specifically for the film. “It’s all just clamor and confusion. It only becomes a story when we tell it, and retell it, our small, precious recollections that we speak again and again to ourselves or to others, first creating the narrative of our lives, and then keeping the story from dissolving into darkness.” Forsyth and Pollard journey with Cave as he delves into religion and his relationship with his father with psychoanalyst Darian Leader, visits with longtime collaborator Warren Ellis (who shares an amazing story about Nina Simone and a piece of gum), drives around as people from his past suddenly appear in his car (friend Ray Winstone, duet partner Kylie Minogue, former bandmate Blixa Bargeld), lays down tracks in the studio (“Give Us a Kiss,” “Higgs Boson Blues,” “Push the Sky Away” with a children’s orchestra), watches television with his twin sons, and goes through his archives of photographs and other ephemera from childhood to the present day.
The film reveals Cave, the leader of cutting-edge groups the Birthday Party, Grinderman, and the Bad Seeds and author of the novels And the Ass Saw the Angel and The Death of Bunny Munro, to be an intelligent, introspective, engaging fellow with a wry, often self-deprecating sense of humor and a hunger to create. “Mostly I write. Tapping and scratching away day and night sometimes,” he says while typing away with two fingers on an old typewriter in his home office. “But if I ever stopped for long enough to question what I’m actually doing? The why of it? Well, I couldn’t really tell you. I don’t know.” The film begins with a barrage of images of Cave and his influences throughout the years, whipping by machine-gun style on multiple monitors, and ends with Cave onstage with the Bad Seeds, becoming the fearless musician that has defined his career. In between, he’s a contemplative husband, father, son, and friend, an artist with a rather unique view of the world and his place in it. At a special event at Town Hall on September 20, Cave participated in a postscreening Q&A with Forsyth and Pollard, performed solo songs at the piano (playing what one fan described as a “dream setlist”), and spoke often about “transformation.” In its own way, 20,000 Days on Earth, which has been held over at Film Forum, is a transformative documentary, a groundbreaking, unconventional, and thoroughly imaginative portrait of a groundbreaking, unconventional, and thoroughly imaginative artist. (For more on Cave’s history, be sure to check out the online Museum of Important Shit, which highlights additional strange paraphernalia from Cave’s life and career.) Following its month-long run at Film Forum, 20,000 Days on Earth makes its way to Williamsburg, where it is scheduled to play at Nitehawk Cinema through October 25.