Ruth Saxton on 20,000 Days On Earth @ Scalarama 2016

By September 4, 2016

Film, TV & Tech. Leeds.


Last night my Scalarama musical marathon started with a bang — well, a cacophony of noise.

20,000 Days on Earth is an embellished day in the life of Nick Cave. It opens with an assault of the senses: a wall of screens, documenting some of the key events and popular culture icons of Cave’s life, as a clock counts the days to twenty thousand. Almost a challenge – “Are you with me?”

Reminiscences with friends and professionals (some real, some imagined) follow, shared and singular contemplation and reflection, teamed with some stirring musical performances – live and in the studio. We witness the mundane juxtaposed with the fantastical. Counterpoint. Cave poetically discusses this early on as the key to his songs. You put two things together that are unexpected, sit back and see what happens, see whether sparks fly.

This is a theme throughout. The jolting electric sounds are heightened, as Cave goes about his every day business in Brighton so you’re never quite sure what is real. We hear him bear his soul with tales of his childhood and relationship with his father. Or pour through his personal archives of photos and memorabilia. Yet, you still wonder: are these just more good yarns from a gifted storyteller? Or a joke with a dark punchline? This is clear in a short but heart-warming scene of him eating pizza, cuddled up with his children. All appears very PG, until the slow zooming camera gets close enough to hear them all delightfully snarl in chorus Tony Montana’s infamous phrase, “Say hello to my little friend!” and the brief whiff of sentimentality disappears and is replaced with a dark chuckle.

Coming to the film with a preconception of a brooding gothic poet, I was surprised by just how much humour is in the film. I laughed a lot! It is gently humorous. And the scenes of him playing with his band are incredibly powerful and yet still occasionally bizarre. Just as you get comfortable and think you’re witnessing something real, Cave composing at the piano, the camera spots Warren, your archetypal aging rocker, on the cross-trainer in the background: totally normal!

The filmmakers play with cinematic conventions, too, to jar the audience. Breaking the 180 degree rule of direction so perception changes part way through a conversation over a cup of tea. Then there are the cameos from friends who just appear and disappear, like apparitions beside him whilst driving along the coast: Ray Winstone, Blixa Bargeld, and Kylie Minogue. At first he doesn’t engage with them, as if it’s his conscience. But then the honest and warm interactions reveal even more about this man, who in contrast to his sometimes aloof stage persona, clearly loves people. Yet there is an uneasy soundtrack underneath, urging you to question what you’re seeing and hearing, as if it were a mystery genre.

Again, this is something that Cave discusses throughout: mythological memories. When we retell a story it becomes mythologised. So by the end you’re not sure how much better you know the man. The audience was definitely being invited in but kept at arms length.

This is a highly personal and entertaining documentary, beautifully laced with deadpan humour and a touch of the surreal. Sparks did fly! I am sure I will be listening to Nick Cave all weekend and scouring for tour dates. And I cannot wait for the festival’s screening of One More Time With Feeling on Thursday at Hyde Park Picture House.

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