“This is my 20,000th day on earth,” says Australian rock musician and writer Nick Cave as we see him waking up in a luxurious bed and baring his chest in the mirror. What are we watching? Is this At Home with Nick Cave—The Royalties Years? Far from it. Like much in this smart and deliriously strange film, the opening scene embraces a familiar tic of the music doc (the pretense of intimacy) but manages both to reject and rework it in inspiring ways. Put it this way: We don’t then see Cave take a crap or boil an egg. The film preserves his public face, even reinforces it, while also managing to offer a no-nonsense and revealing take on living and working as an artist.
The idea is that we spend one day on earth with Nick Cave, from dawn till dusk, via chats with family and friends, a recording session and a gig. But it’s just a conceit, a neat device, and much of the film plays like drama. It’s all a performance—the artifice coexists with honesty. Witness a great scene where the psychoanalyst Darian Leader interrogates Cave about his childhood. The setup is theatrical—the answers are not. Nor do codirectors Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard shoot their film like a traditional fly-on-the-wall doc. There’s no sense of the camera following or invading; everything feels planned, formal and collaborative. If that sounds arch or irritating, it’s not. They let scenes run and breathe and don’t ignore what we want to know.
The past hangs heavily over the film, and Cave talks eloquently about his childhood, his time in Berlin, drug use, marriage and work. But 20,000 Days on Earth exists firmly in the present, relegating most old footage to a frenzied collage during the opening credits. There are just four interviewees—Ray Winstone (the star of The Proposition, which Cave wrote), ex-Bad Seed Blixa Bargeld, Kylie Minogue (with whom Cave had a global hit with “Where The Wild Roses Grow”) and collaborator and friend Warren Ellis. Winstone and Bargeld sit in the passenger seat of Cave’s Jag as they drive around England’s seaside Brighton. Later, Minogue sits in the back, talking about Michael Hutchence. Cave visits Ellis at home, and together they eat eels.
There’s a sense of intimacy but not the sort that pretends we’ve managed to breach the defenses of someone’s life. There’s a shot of Cave watching a film with his young twin boys, eating pizza—the cuteness is exploded when we realize they’re watching Scarface. It’s a typically playful moment. Cave talks of his wife, Susie, and we hear an exciting monologue as he explains with moving hyperbole how he felt when he first laid eyes on her. But we only see her as a reflection in a window. The film conceals as much as it reveals, and its beauty is that it pretends to do nothing else. It embraces a mystery and protects it, and that’s thrilling to behold.