20,000 Days on Earth (Drafthouse Films, NR)

film 20000-days-on-earth_smIt’s a stubbornly avant-garde film that doesn’t really offer much exposition, music, or show footage.



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When you see a truly visionary film for the first time, it’s hard to know what to make of it. We’ve all had that experience: You see a film and immediately afterward don’t know if you like or dislike it. But then you find yourself continuing to think about it, and eventually you resolve the fact that, in fact, you loved it, and wished more films were like it.

20,000 Days on Earth is that type of film. But here’s the weird thing: It’s a concert documentary. We’ve definitely seen formally challenging documentaries recently, and excellent ones, at that (I named fellow Drafthouse Films release The Act of Killing as the second-best film of 2013; 20,000 Days on Earth officially landed at #12 on my 2014 list), but the concert documentary is a genre whose general form hasn’t seen this much artfulness since Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense back in 1984, or maybe Penelope Spheeris’s The Decline of Western Civilization, Part II: The Metal Years in 1988. But then, to call 20,000 Days on Earth a concert documentary is a little misleading; if you want a proper concert doc of subject Nick Cave, track down God Is in the House from 2001; 20,000 Days on Earth is more about the genesis of his newest album, 2013’s Push the Sky Away, and contains very little actual concert footage.

Nick Cave is one of those people who, even if you don’t immediately recognize the name, you probably know something or other he’s done. (And no, he’s not the artist of the same name who currently has an exhibition at the St. Louis Art Museum.) Most of his fans know him as the front man for Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, a group he formed in 1984 that is still going strong. Prior to that, he was the lead singer for the punk band The Birthday Party. If you’ve seen Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1, the song that Harry and Hermione dance to is a Nick Cave song (“O Children”). That creepy-as-fuck song “Red Right Hand” that pops up in just about every horror movie ever (most notably the Scream movies), as well as in Dumb & Dumber, is a Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds cut. Johnny Cash covered what many consider to be Cave’s best-ever track, “The Mercy Seat,” back in 2002. If you’ve seen Wings of Desire, the Bad Seeds are the band the main characters see in concert at the end of the film. Cave wrote the screenplay for The Proposition and Lawless, not to mention the bonkers unproduced screenplay for Gladiator 2 that surfaced online a few years ago. And, alongside Bad Seeds member Warren Ellis, Cave has written excellent scores for films including The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and The Road. I could go on.

Also, Cave is one of my all-time favorite musicians; we’re talking top five or so here. But I’ve learned since I first saw 20,000 Days on Earth at the True/False Film Festival in February 2014 that fans and non-fans both like 20,000 Days, yet react to it in fairly different ways. I was mostly taken with the craft exhibited by directors Jane Pollard and Iain Forsyth; the opening collage of old Cave footage effectively tells his whole life’s biography in seconds, so that the rest of the film can focus on what is supposedly one day in his life, his 20,000th day. Multiple interviews are set up with people both known and unknown to Cave, such as a real psychologist (whom Cave hadn’t met prior to shooting), or Kylie Minogue, with whom he once recorded a duet (“Where the Wild Roses Grow,” from 1996’s Murder Ballads). While these interviews were staged for the camera, the back-and-forth between Cave and the person he’s talking to is unscripted and genuine. It’s a stubbornly avant-garde film that doesn’t really offer much exposition, music, show footage, or really a lot of other footage that you would commonly see in a film such as this one—footage you know Pollard and Forsyth have, but just didn’t include here.

If 20,000 Days on Earth is Cave’s Gimme Shelter, “Higgs Boson Blues” is his “Wild Horses,” in that there’s an excellent sequence where he does an early rendition of what I’ve come to love as one of his best recent songs. And the film smartly climaxes with the epic live version of “Jubilee Street,” which sounds good on the album, but is a total knockout in performance.

Though challenging, what 20,000 Days on Earth does is incredibly hard, and casts a long shadow on just about every other music documentary ever made. Watch another film about another musician and you will see a record of a performance—sometimes a great performance, sometimes not. See 20,000 Days, and you will find an incredibly artful film about creating incredible art. | Pete Timmermann

20,000 Days on Earth shows at the Webster Film Series at 7:30 PM January 22-25. For more information, visit webster.edu/filmseries or call (314) 968-7487.

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