Review: 20,000 Days on Earth

01:45, Aug 21 2014
20,000 days on earth
20,000 DAYS ON EARTH: Shots of Cave chauffeuring various collaborators around in his black Jag' yield a few lovely moments, but also some very self-indulgent padding.

If you ever visited me in the chicken poo-stained shack in Paekakariki that I laughingly refer to as "my house", then chances are you would find that the TV was off, and the stereo was turned up. Loud.

And if you were to come by, as you hacked through the undergrowth and fought off the attentions of my tri-pedal and frankly insane cat, it might well be Nick Cave that you heard blasting out.

I love my movies, and I happily watch four or five films a week, often more. But in the downtime between films, when I'm bashing out these reviews, or pottering away at one of my other "jobs", then there'll be music playing. 

I've a special affection for late-punk, bluesy funk, death-obsessed country ballads, squalling guitars, achingly sad love songs and good old fashioned roof-lifting ear-bleeding, dirty arsed rock n' roll.

All of which makes me a committed Nick Cave fan. Because Cave, over his thirty-years-and-counting career, has done all that, and much more. At his very best, he's a lyricist to compare to Dylan and Cohen, and at his filthiest, he's a die-hard rock pig who could send most of the alleged bad-boys of rock n' roll home crying for their mammas.

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I walked into a late night screening of 20,000 Days on Earth not knowing quite what to expect. Films about musicians have yielded some indelible moments, and some cringe inducing drivel over the years. And 20,000 Days on Earth, much like its star, has got the bases covered.

The film purports to be a portrait of the artist as he spends his 20,000th day on the planet. By film-reviewer maths, that makes him 54 and a bit, and mid-way through the sessions that would eventually take shape as the 2013 album Push The Sky Away.

In reality 20,000 Days is a scripted and over-produced film, shot over a period of weeks or months. There is no fly-on-the-wall immediacy or off-the-cuff revelations here. A scene of Cave with a psychologist is clearly staged, and a lunch-date with long time Bad Seeds' band-leader Warren Ellis - while hilarious and charming - is also scripted and forced. Shots of Cave chauffeuring various collaborators around in his black Jag' yield a few lovely moments, but also some very self-indulgent padding. Ray Winstone is affectionate and funny, Blixa Bargeld is there only to assure Cave that he wasn't such a bad bloke back in the day, Kylie Minogue's contribution would have been better left mostly on the editor's bench.

And yet, among the contrivances and the self-mythologising, there are some wonderful moments here. Seeing Cave and Ellis in the studio is a treat. Scenes of Ellis tutoring a children's choir, and arranging the interactions that are the backdrop to this set of Cave lyrics are inspiring and beautifully done.

But - and this might be the real reason for my ambivalence - Push The Sky Away emerged as a pretty underwhelming album; skating frighteningly close to lazy self-parody, too sparse lyrically or musically to ever be numbered as one of Cave's greats.

Maybe the film I really want to see is 13,500 Days on Earth, which would have caught the making of Let Love In. Or 15,000 Days, which would have put us in the Boatman's Call sessions. Or even 11,000 Days, somewhere between the implosion of The Birthday Party, and the birth of The Bad Seeds.

Or maybe it's just because this film pales so awfully by comparison with the 2011 doco' Autoluminescent, on Cave's Bad Seeds' era guitarist Rowland Howard.

20,000 Days on Earth is a good idea, irritatingly executed, with barely enough honesty or insight to justify its existence. Still, I'm glad I saw it. If you're a fan, you probably will be too.

20,000 DAYS ON EARTH (M), 97 mins, directed by Jane Pollard and Iain Forsyth