20,000 Days on Earth

20,000 Days on Earth ★★★★★

"I am transforming, I am vibrating - I'm glowing - I'm flying! Look at me now!"

I used to suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder. It's much better now - I'm miserable all the year round these days - and one of the ways I used to get it under control was to take photos and videos of grey, rainy skies. If I could take the weather that was troubling me and turn it into a matter of exposure lengths and f-stops, I could control it.

One of the many, many, many revelations of Jane Pollard and Iain Forsyth's new film about Nick Cave is that he used to do the same thing. Although Cave never struck me as the sort of Australian boy who loved his country's sunshine (or, indeed, has seen his country's sunshine), he found the weather in Brighton a bit of a shock when he first moved there. So he started keeping a diary where he recorded his impressions of the weather, that quickly became a depository for all his anxieties and nagging, irrational worries. The artistic impulse is to take those things you can't control - nature, your feelings, the things that keep you awake - and turn them into something you've created.

Forsythe and Pollard are most famous for their video art work, including a series of reconstructions of classic concerts - File Under Sacred Music is a recreation of the Cramps' gig at Napa Mental Institute, A Rock 'n' Roll Suicide repeats the trick for the final Ziggy Stardust show. One of the wonderful things about 20,000 Days on Earth is that unlike their previous work it's not dependent on the quality or historic value of the music it depicts. It helps, of course, if you're a fan, and the rehearsal of 'Higgs Boson Blues' which plays out for seven minutes made my hair stand on end. But going in I wondered whether I would be as interested in this film, and its depiction of Nick Cave's creative process, if I wasn't so utterly in love with the album (Push the Sky Away) that it resulted in. And it turns out that this would be a great film even if it was about the making of Nocturama.

Nocturama is specifically criticised by former Bad Seed Blixa Bargeld when he appears in Cave's car during one of the film's fantasy sequences. Occasionally Cave's collaborators do materialise like this, and the results are different and equally delightful. Bargeld's appearance is touching and raw, Ray Winstone's cameo is honest and hilarious, and when Kylie Minogue appears in the rear view mirror like Cybill Shepherd in the back of Robert De Niro's cab, it puts the dream-like, wistful capper on the whole thing.

These moments of unreality have attracted more attention than they're really worth. It's best to approach 20,000 Days on Earth not as a documentary but as the modern-day equivalent to one of those old rock films like A Hard Day's Night or Slade in Flame where a band play a version of themselves. Except now, with rock music past its sixtieth birthday, the rise-and-fall narrative of these earlier films is obsolete. Pollard and Forsyth's film is about a man nobody expected to make it past 27 celebrating his fiftieth birthday, and trying to work out the still-unanswered question: how can you be a rock star in middle age?

So when Cave goes to see a psychiatrist who probes him about his childhood, I'm sure the situation is set up and that isn't really Nick Cave's psychiatrist (if he has one at all). But that doesn't mean the answers he's giving are untrue or unrevealing. He talks about hearing his father read the first chapter of Lolita and pointing out all the different literary devices Nabokov was using, and he says his father seemed like a different man to him there.

This is what 20,000 Days on Earth is about - the transformation, as Werner Herzog put it, of the world into music. A friend of mine frequents a music forum where there is a thread for Brighton-based members to post their bathetic Nick Cave sightings - the man who was once spotted in his youth writing lyrics with a blood-filled syringe is now cycling down the sea front eating a cheese pastie, that sort of thing.

But I think the man who wrote the line "I woke up this morning with a frappucino in my hand" is quite comfortable with bathos, and is certainly comfortable using this film to expose the difference between the middle-aged father-of-four he is and the roiling prophet of doom he is on stage. To say you can't imagine that gap being bridged is to say you can't imagine art being transformative, or having a power beyond the literal, and if you think that, why do you like art at all?

If you like reality, I will note that the "Nick Cave archives" seen in this film look remarkably similar to Pollard and Forsyth's offices, which I saw afterwards in a short video talking about their excellent short Edit. The most important and lasting thing about that archive set, though, is the monologue Cave delivers about first seeing his wife Susie at the end of the scene, where a staggering text about how she seemed to embody all of the women he's ever fell for is matched with Pollard and Forsyth's blistering montage of archive clips. It's all true, except it's better than that.

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