by Elliot Davies
One More Time With Feeling is simultaneously an elegy, a press-pack, an uncomfortable intrusion into the grieving process, a concert film, a discussion of the creative process, an exploration of advanced new film-making techniques, and a testament to the tenacity of family and the redemptive qualities of music and friendship.
“You believe in God, but you get no special dispensation for this belief now.”
Nick Cave’s last film was life-affirming. This one is too, but only because it will make you clutch those you hold dear with unprecedented vitality.
The film spends its first two-thirds tip-toeing around an unspeakable tragedy through focusing on absolutely anything else. People talk about one thing when they’re clearly talking about something else.
We hear about how all artists must yearn for trauma, simply for want of something to write about. We’re invited to consider the nature of accidents, and the existence of a guiding hand. The prophetical nature of art is introduced, and preoccupations with anxiety and dread are compared to a canary’s cage.
The filming is shaky and blurry. The edits are raw. People speak off the record, so to speak, and it’s only when speaking off the record that they really speak. So to speak.
I can’t imagine what it would be like to watch One More Time With Feeling without knowing the backstory. To cut a long (and hideous) story short: Halfway through the recording of his new album Skeleton Tree, Nick Cave’s son, Arthur, died in a tragic climbing accident.
It’s likely that literally everyone who went to the special international screening on the evening of September 8 2016 knew this backstory. So most people probably watched with baited breath, waiting for someone to say something.
Arthur Cave isn’t quite an elephant in the room. He’s present throughout the whole film – but that might just be because we’re looking for him.
But how would this scan if you had no idea about any of this? And how would you feel after the ultimate breakdown, once everything’s clicked into place? Would it come as a shocking revelation, or would you have been able to read between the lines by this point?
But this is all academic. None of this matters in the slightest.
One More Time With Feeling is no ordinary film. Skeleton Tree will probably never get toured, and you can forgive Nick for not fancying facing the press after what happened. So instead, he gave us a stark, vulnerable glimpse into his world circa 2016. Through detailing the writing, the recording, and the overall creative process, journalists and critics get everything they’ll need to write this year’s think-pieces.
But for the fans, it’s the gift of context. It’s like the Caves are saying: we’re still here. Things are going to be alright, but they’ll never be the same again. It’s not reassuring, but it was never meant to be. You end up feeling like a monster for daring to intrude upon this private space for even a moment.
But we also get songs. New songs! And for the vast majority of people attending that special screening on that September night, these are songs that have never, ever been heard before. Inevitably we read into the lyrics, and we’re not surprised at all that these are some of the most spartan and bruised songs he’s ever written. Which is, of course, saying something.
Skeleton Tree is, by my count, the fourth painfully frank album to be released by a veteran visionary in the past year or so. Each of these landmark releases has meditated on a different theme: Sufjan Stevens’s Carrie & Lowell treated the death of a parent with agonising honesty. Skeleton Tree treats the death of a child with the universe-shaking gravitas it deserves. Bjork’s Vulnicura confronts the death of a relationship. David Bowie’s Blackstar the death of the self.
So what I’m saying is that, having seen the in-studio performances, and having listened to the album through once, I can already tell that Skeleton Tree is going to be one of those albums that you don’t listen to very often, even though it’s really, really good.
I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that the performance of Distant Sky is one of the only moments of the film to be shot in colour rather than black and white. Something strange happens during this performance.
Else Torp sings a few lines, and as she does so, the camera zooms and zooms into her face before passing through her head. As it passes through her, we see her nerves and brain. Then we emerge through the other side of her skull before passing through a small chink in the wall. From here we zoom out to a beautiful night-time aerial shot of London. But we don’t stop there. We keep going until we see the sort of shot of Earth that you feel’s going to pan right to show an embryonic Kubrick starchild.
Is this Arthur?
This isn’t the first time that director Andrew Dominik lets the camera drift impossibly. A mile or two away, One More Time With Feeling was being screened in a different cinema in 3D.
I chose the 2D screening, because it meant supporting a wonderful independent cinema, and because I can’t stand 3D films. But still, these sections, which were seemingly filmed specifically for 3D using a “stupid 3D black and white camera” (as Nick witheringly refers to it) feel as though they’re trying to tell us something. I’m almost certainly wrong, but it does feel as though this is supposed to be the action as viewed by a ghost.
During a particularly frank interview in a film featuring little more than unbearably frank interviews, Nick quips that his wife is much more interesting than he is. And he’s right.
When we first “meet” Susie Cave, she’s a faceless presence on a ghostly Brighton beach. But eventually the Caves let the cameras into their home. It’s full of images of cats, and Susie’s in the process of rearranging the furniture. She designs dresses, and she passionately talks us through her latest line, which seems designed to give women tricked into following cultists a little bit of agency back.
But then it happens – we see the Caves, Nick and Susie, trying to hang a picture. Nick, who usually dresses like an undead libertine, is distressingly dressed in some kind of tracksuit. He looks really tired when Susie finally reveals the picture to the camera. It’s a painting Arthur did aged five of Brighton’s windmill, where he died. Susie points out that they’d framed it in black, but they couldn’t understand why.
At this point we see the Caves as grieving parents. And it’s horrible.
The hero of One More Time With Feeling is Warren Ellis. He’s the friend that keeps everything together – the recording sessions, the interviews, the Caves. And he’s rocking a brand new aluminium fiddle.
It sounds terrible but looks amazing.
One More Time With Feeling is getting a few “encore screenings” in the next few days. Skeleton Tree is out now.