Review: 20,000 Days on Earth

If there’s one thing to be said about Nick Cave, it’s that he knows how to keep busy. Since coming to prominence in the early 80s as the frontman of The Birthday Party, Cave has alternated between so many public faces that the person underneath has become almost irrelevant. Simultaneously taking credit as an acclaimed author, post-punk insurgent, self-serious composer, and Hollywood screenwriter; his résumé is so substantial that it could comfortably be listed as a literary work unto itself.

The only thing binding all of it together is that his works are marked by a tinge of the morose and the morbid. It’s an ethos matched by his general demeanour: a man-in-black, mysterious-stranger aesthetic that is at once equal parts Presley, Cash, and local mortician. Cave has cycled through a number of guises over the years, but almost all of them have possessed a country-and-western hardness; a self-serious, no-nonsense dryness that carries through into his work.

This is perhaps why I was initially surprised to learn that Cave lives in Brighton.

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There’s something about Brighton that seems oddly matched with Nick Cave. For all of his kill-or-be-killed musings on death and despair, least of all his adopted blues drawl, you would think he would end up stationed on some arid plain, porch-bound and disgruntled, as the art of his creations steadily caught up with the reality of his rock stardom.

Yet Brighton is precisely where 20,000 Days On Earth, the Bad Seeds singer’s filmic autobiography, finds its subject; following Cave as he runs his daily chores while stationed beneath England’s greying skies.

There’s something initially disappointing about 20,000 Days. Biographies, fictional or otherwise, often privilege tales of inhuman achievement (for more on this, see my Whiplash review), whereas this finds Nick Cave in a decidedly human space. While your average BBC4 documentary might endeavour to elevate Cave to new heights (oftentimes seemingly just to justify the creation of the documentary in the first place), this is happier to adopt Cave as a background figure: a host more than a subject.

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The indifference with which Cave approaches Brighton perhaps sums up 20,000 Days on earth. Rather than spewing facts and statistics the film is disjointed and vague, touching only on the moments that Cave signposts as intrinsic to the development of his identity. Cave tells his story through loosely-linked vignettes: interviews with prominent accomplices and friends take the form of spiritual hauntings, while childhood stories are told diegetically as he sits in front of whirring film reels and consults—via staged dialogue—with fictional psychiatrists.

If you’re interested in a chronological history of Cave’s 20,000 days on earth (which is almost 55 years, in case you were wondering), you’ll be better served elsewhere. Here the actual happenings of Cave’s life are largely tangential. This autobiography is more akin to a confessional, an assembled string of anecdotes told out of sequence and out of context but bound by the fact that Cave himself chose them as significant.

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A ‘cinematic autobiography’ is something of an oxymoron. Considering films require so much careful deliberation—so much express effort and collaboration from so many different people to produce and screen—the authenticity of a filmic autobiography will always be brought into question much more strongly than its written or spoken counterparts. Film seems more deliberate, and thus more open to untruth, than the seemingly quick-fire, expressly personal creation of a written memoir.

20,000 Days gets around this by embracing the inauthentic. It combines the straight laced exposé of a traditional documentary with a more abstract personal investigation, approaching the life of Cave unashamedly through his own eyes. By paying particular attention to the transformative nature of stardom, and particularly the development and growth of his own ego, Cave’s autobiography manages to provide a cohesive justification of its own existence. It becomes a document of pride, told from within the belly of the beast, one that questions in equal measure the extent to which we construct and perform new selves, and to which these performances reflect on a cohesive whole.

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Cave persistently challenges the significance of his own perceptions via staged scenes with a psychologist. In doing so, he acknowledges the impossibility of truth, and thus moves closer to allowing his autobiography to say something about the world beyond his own. What Cave leaves out is highlighted to be just as important as what he leaves in.

In one sense, it’s a cop-out. Sure, it tells Cave’s story in a unique way, but in doing so it still fails to answer the primary question of which of Cave’s public faces most closely resembles the man himself. It’s merely another performance—a new performance—even more confusing and intangible than the ones we’ve become accustomed to.

Nonetheless, 20,000 Days does one thing and it does it well: it gives Nick Cave a pedestal to talk about how he goes about constructing himself. It gives life to his introspective musings in order to question the impulses that ask us to create: whether we’re constructing new personas in conversation, or trying to find something to say with a guitar and a tambourine.

20,000 Days is one of the most interesting autobiographies I’ve come across. By probing at the question of why he would even want to tell his story in the first place, it tells us things about Nick Cave that no linear narrative could ever hope to. Its lessons may not all be tangible, but at the same time, anything else would have seemed too fake, too sincere, too boring. Go to Wikipedia for the story; watch this for the experience.

4/5

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