20,000 Days On Earth

There was a time when everyone was trying to be Morrissey. At least it seemed that way back when Johnny Depp was young and Ronald Reagan was a running joke.

Every art rocker had coal-black hair and a foreboding brow. They all looked tall and skinny and just greasy enough to acquire some goth edge to add to their latest skin blemish.

Nick Cave emerged from the Australian underground around that time, and while he’s been doing his own, melodic, Cohen-esque music for three decades now, it’s taken a long time for Cave to find his own light.

But one of the wonderful things about 20,000 Days on Earth is how it explores that lengthy creative process without apologizing for a single moment of expression. A mongrel as far as genre, this movie appears to be a documentary of sorts, but Cave is self-reflective enough to know there is no such thing as cinema verité in the era of reality television, and sets about making a movie that has as much artifice as performance.

Cave tells us he does nothing but eat, sleep, work and watch TV. Then he tells us he also cannibalizes every facet of his personal life, including the most intimate feelings for his wife.  It’s a refreshing moment that not only comes early, it feels real enough to transcend all the obviously staged stuff that follows and give it creative context.

Cave is essentially giving us a tour of his creative persona — and whether it’s a representative reflection of the real man doesn’t really matter. That’s not the man we see and relate to on stage. Like Plato’s cave analogy, the human condition is a state where one only sees the flickering shadows, not the thing itself. Cave captures all of this metaphysical pondering when he sits down for an extended chat with a man who appears to be his psychologist. He talks about how certain gigs can be transformative, and how at this stage in his life, that’s the only thing he’s interested in creating.

He tells us about performing with Nina Simone before she passed away, and how this clenched woman arrived on stage with all the warmth of an ice cube but eventually melted before the crowd, quenching a thirst for something transcendent and real.

“It’s important to me now,” he says, “to do shows that really try to offer the audience a transformative experience.”

It’s one thing to say it, but it’s another thing to actually pull off — and Cave knows it better than anyone, which is why we spend the second half of the film watching him create his next song-filled spectacle. We watch him sing a few bars of a work in progress, only to have his bandmate tell him he sounds like Lionel Richie. We watch him scribble in this notebook, only to watch him cross everything out.

It’s painful and repetitive and just as angst-inducing as one might imagine the production of real art to be. But it’s also human, accessible and oddly humourous. Thanks to Cave’s ability to poke fun at his own over-ripe persona, 20,000 Days on Earth is the kind of midlife crisis you wish every man would have, if only because it’s got a lot more to say than a brand-new Porsche.

-KATHERINE MONK, CANADA.COM

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