Should we trust artists to tell the story of artists? On the plus side, who understands them better? If there's a secret language of imagination and creativity, then the members of this sprawling tribe must be the ones who speak it best. On the other hand, could there be anything more insufferable than artists talking to artists about art?
20,000 Days on Earth is a documentary about an artist, Australian-born singer, musician and composer Nick Cave, made by artists, Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard, who have a background in experimental film and video art. The surprise is how plainspoken, illuminating and delightful it is, and, as shot by Erik Wilson, how beautiful. It's that rare documentary that works as its own visual creation. The movie ends with an evening-time seaside image of Brighton, where Cave lives with his family, a tumble of regal little buildings against a muted, velvety sky; it almost looks like an English version of Venice. This is a doc with, among other things, a firm sense of place, and not just your random filmed Q&A with an interesting guy.
Of course, Cave, whether you know his music or not, is a pretty interesting guy. 20,000 Days on Earth doesn't pretend to any cinéma vérité purity. It's set up as a supposedly typical Nick Cave day, scripted with his own words, rendered in voiceover, combined with conversations he has with the people around him. As a singer, Cave, who made a name for himself in the 1980s — first with his band the Birthday Party and later with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, which has been active in various permutations to this day — has a growly, brooding voice, and to an extent, his view of life and art matches that sound. One of Pollard and Forsyth's more novel ideas was to sit Cave down with a psychoanalyst, Darian Leader, and capture the proceedings on camera. Leader asks Cave what he fears most. The answer: losing his memory. "Memory is what we are," he says simply. "The sole reason to be alive is your memory."
But in addition to being deeply thoughtful, Cave often comes off as affable and direct. He shows a wry sense of humor that's not always apparent in his songs, which often conjure the lacy, inky blackness of Victorian mourning clothes. 20,000 Days on Earth is meticulously crafted but nonetheless feels casual and heartfelt. It's revelatory, and wonderful, to watch Cave walking (or driving) around, being a real person; if the movie is somewhat staged, it's never stagey. We see Cave dropping in for lunch at the home of his friend, bandmate and collaborator Warren Ellis, and the two huddle together in the cramped kitchen gossiping like neighborhood housewives. In another sequence, we hear a recording of Cave describing how he felt the moment he met his wife, Susie, at London's Victoria and Albert Museum.
There's plenty of Cave's music in 20,000 Days on Earth, though it's mostly folded into the movie's margins as a way of shedding light on his songwriting process. There is, however, some marvelous performance footage at the end, including Cave and the Bad Seeds lighting a figurative match to "Stagger Lee" in a smallish club.
If 20,000 Days on Earth is a portrait of an artist, made by artists, it's inclusive in the best way. It doesn't make Nick Cave — who has sometimes seemed like a glowering emissary from an earlier, darker era — into someone cuddly. It does something much better: It makes him just believably human enough, without dissolving his mystique.