The myth-maker becomes the myth in 20,000 Days on Earth, a fun-house foray through memory, music, life, and creativity. Over the course of the eponymous, invented day, Nick Cave (the musician, not the visual artist) motors through fiction and reality, practicing with his band, eating pizza with his kids, reviewing his archive, and chatting with ethereal visitors from his past, oneiric carpoolers, during his rides around an imaginary Bristol.
First-time directors Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard are wily and warmhearted, memory-hacking fantasists whose previous work dug into the feasibility and sensation of recreation, meticulously re-enacting a live version of David Bowie’s final performance as Ziggy Stardust in A Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide (1998) and an infamous show legendary punk band The Cramps performed for the patients of the Napa Mental Institute. 20,000 Days on Earth is a new, almost undefinable effort for the two, moving beyond recreation to an easy, astonishing, odd blend of fact and fiction, myth and history, staged and unscripted scenes — mirroring the stories we tell, but perhaps those Cave tells most of all. What is real and what is staged are of no real difference.
In reality, Cave’s archives are in Melbourne, Australia. And yet, Cave descends into his material past, discussing old photos, odd locks of hair with the actual head of his collection, though you’d have to do some research to know this. He meets with famed British psychoanalyst Darian Leader for an session — though Leader is not his psychoanalyst. Cave provided Forsyth and Pollard with unheard of access. The two raided Cave’s diaries and journals, his musical process, and with Leader, his mind.
“Memory is what we are. Your very soul and your very reason to be alive are tied up in memory,” Cave nevertheless explains to Leader, in their open and disarming scene.(I can’t recall another film, unless it involves a notorious criminal, where the subject is interviewed not by the directors but a psychologists.) Prodding by Leader, Cave talks — what else? — about his father and childhood, where were very un-Cave-like —p leasant, supportive, and joyful.
Cave segues through their dark, strange, often moving scenes without batting an eye, a sort of impossible Twilight Zone character, open-hearted and at ease, despite entering an altered, but very real reality. One of the three figures who visitor him during his drives (actor Ray Winstone and fellow Aussie musician Kylie Minogue are the other two) Cave chats with Blixa Bargeld, the former original guitarist with Cave’s band, the Bad Seeds. Prior to their scene, Bargeld and Cave hadn’t spoken for years, and never about Bargeld’s departure from the Bad Seeds. Heightened and unpredictable, yet scripted, moments like these make 20,000 Days on Earth a surprising, thrilling, unusual world. If it’s hagiographic, it’s only obliquely, which is astonishing for a music documentary — and yet 20,000 Days on Earth is not one. This can start to sound confusing, but Forsyth and Jane are deft editors and directors, setting up the premise early on, complete with the day’s schedule an assistant tells (us) and Cave early in the morning: visit the archives, go to practice, etc.
20,000 Days on Earth is so many things, it’s clear why many commentators have had trouble categorizing Forsyth and Pollard’s (and Cave’s) film. The performances and behind-the-scenes practices are rocking and revealing. Conversations are generous and surprising; Cave’s monologuing inspiring, a celebration of a creativity and action. The film is a deconstruction of Cave the myth that mades its home within the rubble. The only problem is it is just easy to miss some of these qualities, recognize who’s who, or what’s being done, especially if you’re not a Cave fan, or even if you are. A cheat-sheet would have been nice. Which means 20,000 Days on Earth will probably grow with each viewing, lingering around for many more days to come.