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20,000 Days on Earth: An artist finds fulfillment by losing himself

a/Arts & Entertainment/Film and TV by

Like most projects Nick Cave pours his soul into, 20,000 Days On Earth is a gripping experience.In the first scene of the film, the Australian post-punk legend awakes in bed with his wife on what he claims to be his “20,000th day on earth.” Following that revelation, Cave reflects on the chaotic 19,999 days that preceded it. He claims that he eventually “ceased to be a human being,” presumably becoming instead a creature with a superhuman affinity for gold rings—which we frequently see him wearing during the film.

The directors of 20,000 Days, acclaimed British video artists Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard, are already famed across the Atlantic for their re-enactments of seminal moments in the history of rock—including David Bowie’s 1973 farewell performance as Ziggy Stardust, among many others. Yet instead of settling for something similar with Cave, Forsyth and Pollard have co-conspired with him to make something perhaps more interesting: A genre-bending quasi-documentary with fresh insights about what it means to be an artist.   

Forsyth’s and Pollard’s collaboration with Cave was initially supposed to consist of promo videos for Push The Sky Away (2013), Cave’s fifteenth and most recent album with longtime backing band the Bad Seeds, but the project slowly grew into a feature film. Considering the array of locations Cave visits, shooting the entire movie within a 24-hour period would not have been possible. Instead, the filmmakers use lighting over the course of the movie to signify the progression from morning to night—a symbolic “day” in Cave’s frenetic life. We watch the bright, warm tones of the recording studios Cave inhabits early on in the film meld into the shadowy, bluish glow of the Nick Cave Archives, a storehouse of Cave’s personal miscellany where he makes an extended stop toward the end of the film.

Part of the story is about showing how Cave juggles fatherhood and married life with being a world-famous musician. The filmmakers’ clever idea of inserting Cave’s friends into the backseat of his car as he drives to his next destination is a neat visual reminder of his jam-packed lifestyle. Between recording sessions, psychotherapy, and movie night with his twin boys, Cave reconnects with old friends. He shares his performance secrets with Australian pop-star-turned-actress Kylie Minogue, with whom Cave recorded hit single “Where the Wild Roses Grow” for the Bad Seeds’ 1996 album Murder Ballads.

“For me, there’s a kind of psychodrama going on with people in the front row,” he explains to her. “I get a huge amount of energy from that.”

In these scenes and throughout the film, the filmmakers, editor Jonathan Amos, Forsyth, Pollard, and Amos all picked up awards at Sundance for their efforts to make magic happen on-screen. They edit scenes of Cave at work and in conversation with a conciseness that keeps the action flowing and puts the drama of each interaction at centre stage.

Likewise, at a couple of points, Cave cuts in to offer us a soliloquy on a topic of his choice. Cave relates how the view of the ocean in his adopted hometown of Brighton inspires him with its alternation between a “sky so blue you can’t even look at it,” and a storm full of “great black thunderheads that make you feel like you’re inside [of it].” Forsyth and Pollard drive home Cave’s scintillating words by syncing them up with striking images of angry oceanic skies, the whole thing wrapped up in the haunting crescendos of Australian composer/musician Warren Ellis’s ambient score. 

Not everyone has the ability to grip an audience with personal nostalgia and meteorological musings for an hour-and-a-half. Thankfully, Nick Cave is not just anyone. He may swagger through life, making lofty claims about the nature of art and memory, but he has earned the right to do so. As this film attests, he is a captivating figure both on-stage and off, and a capable wordsmith to boot. Forsyth and Pollard have good reason to devote a feature film to mining Cave’s mind for gold, even if he does wear plenty on his fingers.       

20,000 Days on Earth is currently playing at various times until at least Oct. 9 at Cinema du Parc (3575 Parc). Student tickets are $10.    

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