It’s easy to understate the tremendous impact Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds have had not just on music, but culture as a whole. His consistency as a performer, lyricist and innovator in his brand of music is phenomenal. Poetic beauty, pent-up emotions spilt out onto carefully crafted verses that provide such intricate beauty. I find it nigh on impossible to articulate my thoughts about Cave’s abilities not just as a performer, but as a person also. 20,000 Days on Earth looks to do that for me, though, as this documentary-drama hybrid seeks to give us a loose, semi-fictionalized life-story of Cave as we spend a day in his life.
That keyword, though, “fictionalized” looms over the film. For fans of The Bad Seeds that should give indication enough as to how the story will play out and progress. I’m relatively new to Cave and his music, so that fascinating intricacy was hidden away far more for me than I’d expected it to be, but it’s rather easy to tell that directors Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard are in on the gag. Gag doesn’t seem like the right word, though, for 20,000 Days on Earth isn’t a gag, it’s just a story unfolding in a way that feels both natural and faux at the same time. Cave and company muse on isolation, loneliness, grief, and an unfulfilled life that feels aggressively at odds despite the accomplishments and fame. “I eat, I write, I watch TV, I write”. Cave’s living the dream by the sounds of it, but it looks like a complete nightmare.
Seeing the recording process and the criticism he plants on his own work is thoroughly intriguing. It pulls the curtain back on Cave and fellow Bad Seeds’ studio personas, intercut with an interview diving into potentially truthful anecdotes about his family, childhood, and early life. How much of it is true doesn’t really matter, as the film progresses the line between fiction and reality is blurred to the point of no return. Soldered together, an iron-clad connection between the real world and Cave’s sleight of hand. It’s an impressive mixture, the ability to pull emotion and sympathy out of moments that could be complete fiction. If anything, that’s a testament to the abilities Cave has not just as a writer, but as an actor.
Monologuing his way through the events of his 20,000th day on Earth, it soon becomes clear that the fictional style and direction certainly aims for narrative, rather than information. Artistic choices that don’t feel questionable, but rather cosy. Interesting set design, a consistent narration from Cave, and some of the quips he has must be true to some degree. Why he creates music, how he feels he creates his own world within the crooning choruses and verses, surely there’s some truth to that. Discussion about how lyricism is all about counterpoints, waiting for the sparks to fly, rather than to actively pursue the meaning of the song. This is certainly present in the music Cave offers, and the beauty of the film is that, truth or falsehood, he’s generally in the ballpark of being just as poetic in narration as he is in his studio work.
One day simply isn’t enough to wrap one’s head around the intricacies of Cave’s craft or work ethic. A cross into the world of film was inevitable, and it couldn’t have been created better than 20,000 Days on Earth. I wonder whether Forsyth and Pollard had expected Cave to litter the film with pockets of wisdom around every corner, but if anyone could pull coordinated sophistication out of a maddeningly difficult life, it’d certainly be Cave and the crew he surrounds himself with.