In a fictional 24-hours, Australian musician and writer Nick Cave examines his own songwriting process and turns his music from a simple sketch to a dazzling show.  

 

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Exactly what a documentary should be.

SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL / MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: The very best documentary is cinematic in its scope and ambition, its visual language and structural playfulness. This is nothing new, but it is becoming more prevalent, and here is a prime example.

UK visual artists Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard’s beautifully stylised film about the Melbourne-born singer and writer Nick Cave will delight not only his dedicated fans, and rock enthusiasts, but also, I suspect, anyone interested in art and creativity.

This is because the film has a cinematic ambition to which it admirably lives up, not only in its bold structure and impressively moody cinematography, production, editing and sound design, but also in its plethora of imaginative and unconventional touches, such as the main interview with Cave being conducted by what appears to be a psychiatrist (but is probably an actor). Its boldness never feels forced.

The film’s movement from the specific to the universal means it deserves to find a wide audience. In digging for insights into Cave’s artistic processes as singer and songwriter, live performer, scriptwriter and novelist, it reflects upon the creative process in general.

When Cave, for instance, takes viewers on a tour through the pages of his fascinating  “weather diaries”, written as a way of coping with the miserable weather in his adopted UK home (much of the film is shot in and around the coastal town of Brighton), it speaks to the pragmatic nature of creativity. The urge to simply create, on a regular basis, leads to art as a secondary spin-off. It becomes a kind of playpen where creators discover and develop their ideas and techniques without necessarily setting out with any clear agenda.

Unlike more conventional music documentaries, which dutifully plod through their subjects’ lives, 20,000 Days touches on key points of his life, especially his childhood. One strong focal point is his relationship with his father, and how being read passages from Nabokov’s Lolita affected his imagination as a youth. It glides around some biographical way-stations, such as his Brazilian sojourn, without feeling evasive, and it acknowledges his junkie past in Melbourne’s sonic attack squadron The Birthday Party without getting bogged down. Importantly, it never tries to over-sell its subject. It tries to understand Cave without worshipping him. (Just compare with last year’s Paul Kelly documentary, Stories of Me, with its conga-line of flunkies informing us of the master’s brilliance.)

Strikingly, a few conversations between Cave and former collaborators are staged as car journeys with Cave at the wheel – with Ray Winstone (who starred in the Cave-scripted film The Proposition), former Bad Seed Blixa Bargeld, and Kylie Minogue, with whom he recorded an out-of-character hit single, but it’s never about feeding his ego – these are genuinely thoughtful dialogues about the ups and downs and whys and wherefores of creative lives and collaborations, expressed in a warmly down to earth manner. When it comes to extant creative relationships, the lion’s share of the attention goes to Warren Ellis, the violinist and keyboard player with The Bad Seeds (and formerly Grinderman) who like Cave lives on the English south coast. One especially memorable highlight is their recollection of shared festival bill with Nina Simone.

Most important to all to the film’s success though is Cave’s thoughtfulness as a subject. As a younger man, he could often appear more than a little pretentious and arrogant, but middle age, fatherhood and a settled and obviously loving marriage seem to have given him a deeper perspective and sense of security about his work, his career and life and art in general. If only all music documentaries could be as insightful and rewarding as this.

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1 hour 37 min

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