If you’re going to undertake a deep and bizarre character study, you can do a good deal worse than to hold the microscope over Nick Cave. A rock icon, wrapped in an enigma, wrapped in countless shiny pairs of leather shoes, Cave’s multi-faceted, endlessly fascinating career has spanned decades of music, books and films, leaving the former Birthday Party singer as one of the most universally beloved men in modern culture. He’s a true rock and roller: a gutter-voiced, greasy-haired troubadour of love and hate and everything in between. 20,000 Days on Earth is a fucking mess of a film, packed with strange insights, quasi-interviews and semi-nonsensical voice overs – so why do I find it so fascinating?
Part documentary, part semi-contrived drama, part creative explosion, 20,000 Days on Earth chronicles a day in Cave’s life, including recording sessions (“Can you tune the piano in the barn?”), childhood reminiscences and in-car exchanges with a possibly imagined Ray Winstone. The audience is essentially hurled into a calculatedly messy corner of Cave’s mind, allowed to bask in his lyrical reflection for an hour and a half of hypnotic, chameleonic ruminations on life, love and – of course – the music.
It’s evidently a film made almost completely on Cave’s own terms, so it’s fortunate that those terms are so permissive – stretching from the painful, all the way through to the flat out weird. He’s a man who has done more living than most of us could accomplish in five life times, and the film would remain thoroughly interesting were it just Cave sitting in a room recalling all the gigs and the drugs and the strange man upstairs who collected Christmas decorations. Barely a moment passes without a new oddball anecdote or cryptic life lesson being unleashed, making 20,000 Days on Earth‘s modest 100 minute runtime an often beguiling breeze.
And then there’s the music. Oh, the music. Cave’s done plenty with his career, but it’s the poetic, labyrinthine ballads he seems able to construct in his sleep for which he will remain most renowned. 20,000 Days features a great deal of in-studio footage as Nick and his Bad Seeds begin the process of cobbling together last year’s excellent Push the Sky Away. The snarling troubadour hasn’t mellowed with age, and even in studio he cuts a hypnotic figure, best highlighted in a loose but brilliant recording of Higgs Boson Blues – the film’s rough and tumble centerpiece.
And yet, Cave is so much more than just the music. He speaks with phenomenal gravitas, and even in regular conversation is effortlessly lyrical, spouting intelligent and earnest quips with an ease not granted to us mere mortals. The brooding voice-overs and oddball interviews often tread a fine line between pretension and honesty, but for every moment of self-absorption there are three or four that give us a true and beautiful insight into one of rock and roll’s last great minds. It’s like watching a Bob Dylan interview from the late 60’s – the material may not always be comprehensible, but even at its wankiest, the sheer fascination of observing a genius mind on full boil is breathtaking.
It’s an odd one, 20,000 Days on Earth – a messy and intriguing document of a man who, through his art, has transformed himself into a creative powerhouse, a hypnotic and effervescent force of nature who snarls his lyrics and lives independent of time. It’s somewhat reminiscent of the James-Murphy-Cleans-the-Coffee-Machine segments of Shut Up and Play the Hits – only stretched out to a whole film and ramped up to 11 – showing us an ordinary day made interesting by an extraordinary man. The experience is a strange one, but Cave holds it together, slowly painting the bonkers portrait of a man who blew his mind out and returned as a creative atom bomb – an unstoppable, snake-hipped enigma with the tongue of a poet and the trousers of a 70’s porn star.
As poetic and downright weird as the snake-hipped icon at its center, 20,000 Days On Earth is a messy and endlessly fascinating look at one of music's great wild men.