20,000 Days on Earth is essentially Nick Cave: The Movie. In making a film about Nick Cave, directors Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard could have taken one of three approaches:
1. A lavish biopic that twists “the truth” to its own ends, starring Guy Pearce as Nick Cave.
2. A traditional rock-doc, chock full of talking head hagiographies.
3. A Wild Zero style flight of fantasy, in which Nick is given complete free-reign to bring his dark visions to the screen in any way he sees fit.
I wish they’d gone for option three. It would likely have resulted in a mutant combination of the Heathen Child video and Nick Cave’s tragically abandoned time-travel-based script for Gladiator 2. However, I cannot complain at all about the approach they did take. It’s a combination of options one and two: A lavish biopic rock-doc starring Nick Cave as Nick Cave.
20,000 Days on Earth recreates Nick Cave’s 20,000th day on Earth. That’s the day he turned 54.794. He gets up, he writes. He goes to therapy, and on the verge of tears, talks about his father. He goes to visit Warren Ellis. Nick presents him with some taxidermised birds, and in exchange, Warren fries him some eels on squid ink spaghetti. Nick then spends some time in the archives, looking at some old photos. Whilst driving around Brighton, he talks with some ghosts from the past – Ray Winstone, Blixa Bargeld, Kylie Minogue. After sharing some pizza and watching Scarface with his sons, he goes down to the beach and glares at the sea.
It’s a strange film. Any moment of screen time that’s shared by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis is hilarious. They were both terrified of Nina Simone when she played at Nick’s Meltdown, and a bit of piano noodling is shot down when Warren says that it reminds him of Lionel Richie. But most of the time, Nick is alone, and haunted. Brooding and regretful, he’s like a Sebald protagonist: endlessly wandering whilst dragging the weight of history behind him, reluctant to turn and gaze at the trail he’s making in the sand.
And he monologues. The secret to writing a song is counterpoint. Nothing that can be fully explained is of much interest. The English make terrible fish and chips.
Some critics have taken issue with the sheer Nick Caveyness of 20,000 Days on Earth. There’s talk of pretentious self-indulgence, the implication being that, unless you’re a fan of Nick Cave (or the creative process in general), you might find this whole thing more than a little precious.
That’s fair enough, I suppose. But the thing is, Nick Cave is a cult musician, and I am definitely part of the cult. ‘ooked, I was. ‘ooked.
Of particular interest was the idea that your surroundings might influence your art. Nick Cave, Australian, now lives in Brighton, and he doesn’t seem too sure as to why. And yet, the place has made it into his songs. The sky. The water. The hills. The buildings. The people.
I touched upon this when compiling a list of great songs about UK cities that aren’t London. Cities get under your skin. Whether you want them to or not, they just do. With an artist as mercurial as Nick Cave, it’s fascinating to think what he might have created had he chosen to live anywhere else. What would Nick Cave produce if he allowed for Liverpool to get under his skin? Or Manchester? Or Winnersh? Or Nuneaton? Or Diss?
Having absorbed Brighton, Nick wrote a novel, which I didn’t like too much, and an album, which I think is one of the best he’s ever made. As I mentioned in the aforementioned city songs article, most every song on Push The Sky Away references Brighton in some way, but never is the cities influence than on album centrepiece, Jubilee Street.
And you know, that’s such a good song that I have no qualms with embedding it into my second article in a row:
As a Nick Cave lifer, one of my favourite things about 20,000 Days on Earth is that it could potentially result in Jubilee Street being recognised as his masterpiece. The song is used to devastating effect in the film. To reveal precisely how might ruin the impact for all who are yet to see it for the first time; but suffice to say that, for Nick at least, it’s literally life-affirming.
On Wednesday September 17 2014, a gala performance of 20,000 Days on Earth was simultaneously broadcast in 150 cinemas across the UK. After the film, we were treated to a Q&A with directors Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard, as well as a stripped down live set by Nick and a couple of Bad Seeds. He played The Weeping Song, And No More Shall We Part, The Ship Song, Into My Arms, God Is In The House, and Mermaids.
It was beautiful, and it was exactly the opportunity I needed to bask in the elemental wonder of his songs – very much the soundtrack to my life – after having watched the film.
Even though I was watching a satellite feed on a screen some 129.3 miles away from the action, I still felt like I was there. It still felt wonderful, magical, transcendent.
There might be a lesson there, Kate.