Film Review: 20,000 Days on EarthFan The Fire Recommends

Posted in Film, Recommended, Reviews
By Martin Roberts on 19 Sep 2014

Here is an interesting piece: 20,000 Days on Earth presents itself as a day in the life of the musician Nick Cave, only it’s a fictionalised version of such, part-scripted and part biographical account. It’s also part autobiography, since Cave himself shares the writing credit. What, then, can we understand to be ‘real’, and what is ‘created’? Given the considerations of the film itself, it doesn’t really matter.

Cave talks in the film about how everyone wants to be somebody else (“on some level”) and how his own artistic person is in one sense an attempt to create a new persona. We can view the film in the same light, because it works as an individual piece of art – something very knowingly crafted – and also, partially, as a study of Cave and his work.

In the opening scenes I felt the semi-documentary style to be a little too mannered – a little disingenuous. It’s shot (very well) in a precise, arty sort of way, and immediately breaks what we might think of as documentary conventions. As a result it catches you off guard slightly, but it doesn’t take long to settle into its idiosyncratic approach to its central figure.

What the film is about is Cave, yes, but more so his artistic process – what it means to him, and how he expresses it. There is a drawn out interview between Cave and a counsellor-type figure, the content of which we take to be sincere, though it may not entirely be so. There are a few celebrity cameos (for want of a better phrase) in which Cave chats to old colleagues while driving around his fictionalised 20,000th day. If the viewer decides not to accept the filmmaking style for what it is, I can see how some of this might rankle slightly, but the film has its style and it sticks to it. It’s also very determinedly about Cave and his thoughts on himself and his work – if you’re looking for a ‘warts and all’ documentary, this isn’t it. I don’t think it’s hagiographical, and it didn’t come across as a vanity project to me, because the film is never deceptive about what it is. Cave is part of this portrayal of himself, and that’s fine. He’s been reinventing his memories, he tells us, since he was young; this is just a new medium.

We get to see some footage of Cave and his band recording their most recent album, Push the Sky Away, and bits and pieces of archive footage and photography, some of which is Cave’s own. There’s a lovely sequence near the end in which footage of today’s Cave is intercut with archive performance footage – a bit obvious, one might say, but touching and oddly encouraging to see.

Is the primary audience for this film comprised of Nick Cave fans? I would like to think not, given the insights it provides into one man’s thought process. There’s certainly food for thought in here regardless of whether or not you’re receptive to Cave’s music. Co-directors Iain Forsyth and Jan e Pollard have put together an enigmatic piece. It perhaps won’t be to everyone’s tastes because it doesn’t play like a ‘normal’ documentary, but it’s a compelling watch.


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