The Warlock of Oz
You know how there are people and things in the world who you generally approve of and sort of suspect you might really like, but whom you feel no real driving urge to actually investigate and become familiar with? Well, that's really how I feel about Nick Cave (if I can get to the end of this review without appearing to go off on an odd and over-familiar tangent about Nicolas Cage, it will be down to a triumph of editing), the Australian singer-songwriter, and sometime novelist, actor, and screenwriter.
Cave has long struck me as My Kind of Artist, despite the fact I know very little of substance about him. For example, I can barely recall the lyrics of his biggest UK hit, Where the Wild Roses Grow, but could probably perform the Shirehorses' reworking of it, Hapless Boy Lard, without needing to consult notes (sample lyric: 'They call me the Hapless Boy Lard/Why they call me that I do not know'/'Because you're a fat gormless pillock'/'Yes, I suppose so'). The opportunity to become at least a little better acquainted arises, however, with the release of Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard's 20,000 Days on Earth, a pseudo-documentary about Cave.
I say pseudo-documentary as this is actually a partially-scripted, carefully assembled film. The central conceit is that the film depicts the 20,000th day in Nick Cave's life (54, before you start reaching for the abacus, although given he was a bit older when the film was shot some rounding down has obviously taken place), and the camera follows him around his adopted home town of Brighton while his voice-over muses on his identity as an artist and a human being. He visits his therapist, has lunch with old friend and collaborator Warren Ellis (I was initially baffled to discover that the writer of Transmetropolitan, DV8, and Supergod – amongst many others – was also an accomplished musician, but apparently it's not the same guy), pops in to where his personal archive is being curated, and then performs a gig with his band the Bad Seeds. Intercut with this is some rather more conventional footage of Cave and the band recording some new material – at one point the singer seems about to launch into an unlikely cover of Lionel Richie's All Night Long but this never materialises – while Cave's adventures in motoring are spiced up by some of his more notable past collaborators materialising in the car with him for a brief chat: Ray Winstone and Her Kylieness are probably the two best-known of these (according to the credits Kylie brought her own hair and make-up designer to the project, just adding to the not-inappropriate impression that she's teleported in from another, somewhat more commercial movie).
Okay, so we are somewhat in the realms of the arthouse here, and this is certainly not your conventional rockumentary. Then again, Cave is not your conventional rock star, as anyone who's heard his brand of apocalyptic blues-rock will testify, but the uniqueness of Cave and his persona is not really an issue here. Not only does he have serious charisma, but he is also clearly a very bright fellow, and his insights into art, celebrity, and the creative process are compellingly presented – needless to say, Cave co-wrote the movie with the directors. Lack of familiarity with Nick Cave and his work is not necessarily a barrier to the enjoyment of this film.
On the other hand, the nature of the film – a very slightly pretentious meander through a fake day, complete with suddenly-manifesting and vanishing celebrity interlocutors – will probably be enough to put some people off it. This is what gives the film its own, very strong identity, though, and one of the most impressive aspects of it is the way that it illustrates many of the things that it is saying. In the interview and spoken-word sections of the film, Cave repeatedly returns to his ideas about the transformative nature of live performance, and his desire to adopt another persona while on stage – and in the footage of live performances that form the closest thing the film has to a climax, the truth of this is unmistakable, Cave's concerts having something of the intimate, personal intensity of a religious revival, the singer becoming something akin to a preacher on stage, testifying to a mesmerised congregation.
Nick Cave's involvement in the scripting process means that this is very much the authorised version of the singer's persona, and genuine insights and surprises into who the singer really is are few and far between – his wife barely appears, for example, and his sons only turn up very briefly (Cave the devoted father is shown watching Scarface with his clearly-underage brood) – but then this was never the intent of the film. And perhaps the very artificiality of the film allows it to be a bit more genuinely revealing about its subject. It didn't turn me into a raving Cave fan, but it has certainly made me a bit more likely to check out his back catalogue. A very different sort of film, but in a good way.