20,000 Days On Earth is a documentary, directed by Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard, about a day in the live of the musician/writer Nick Cave, of Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds. What makes it unique is that it isn’t a traditional “day-in-the-life” documentary, the likes of which has been done before. It is a broad and very cinematic version of that kind of documentary, one that conveys a day in the life but also gives off the impression of having been filmed over a very large number of days. Specifically, it was filmed while Cave recorded and performed his album from early last year, “Push The Sky Away”.
At this point you may have already switched off, if you are not familiar with Cave, or if you plain just don’t like his music. In which case, switch back on, because whether you like him or not, this is one of the most unique and memorable film experiences of the year, a film which widens the scope from just being about Cave the man, and explores numerous avenues such as the artistic process, the bearing our parents have on us, the friendships we make, and our general adventures through life itself. Much like Terry Zwigoff’s masterful 1994 film “Crumb” about the eponymous cartoonist, this is a film for everybody.
What also helps is the film’s production, which is stellar. I have said that this film is cinematic, and so it is. It uses the most cinematic of aspect ratios, 2.40:1, as well as an abundance of shallow focus unusual for a documentary. The director of photography Erik Wilson has worked on Richard Ayoade’s “The Double”, another film I praised for it’s gorgeous look, as well as the immensely popular documentary “The Imposter” from a couple of years ago. The film looks the part.
It also sounds the part. This is not so much a comment on Cave’s music (which I am ambivalent towards with the exception of a few songs, which I love dearly), but more a comment on how they are used in this film. They are used as emotional peaks, and it is very effective. They come in moments of joy, moments of breakthrough, and moments of creation, and as such the viewer tailors the music to what they are seeing on screen, with an almost orgasmic flow. And the final scene, where Cave sings “Push The Sky Away” to a baying crowd, is as satisfying and life-affirming a moment in the cinema as has been had this year, narrative film or otherwise.
This is not to say, however, that Cave becomes an irrelevancy in lieu of the directors’ vision. He is still the centre of the documentary; but he is an engaging, thoughtful and funny subject who makes this film engaging, thoughtful and funny. I do believe that anybody would warm to Cave after seeing this; he speaks candidly and honestly about his heroin addiction, the love for his wife, his children, how much he loves making music. He is a passionate man and that passion rubs off on the viewer. He tells and re-tells anecdotes, including one very vivid tale about Nina Simone, and we listen, because we get the impression that these things, these aspects of his life, mean something to him.
The audience I saw this film with, and it was a fully packed screen, laughed at all the right moments and fell silent in the introspective ones. This is, empirically, the most crowd-pleasing movie of the year. I saw the film with a live Q+A/musical accompaniment via satellite, which included Forsyth, Pollard and Cave himself. The directors said something very telling; “we want to make you feel like how listening to Cave’s music makes us feel”.
If that’s how the music makes them feel, then fantastic.
20,000 Days is in cinemas today.