‘20,000 Days on Earth’ movie review: Nick Cave’s self-indulgent journey

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Nick Cave is… Nick Cave, warts and all, in 20,000 Days on Earth, a slick pseudo-documentary that purports to follow the musician and writer’s 20,000th day on this planet. The result is a great-looking feature with some terrific music, memorable anecdotes, and amusing recollections asides by Cave that will no doubt delight fans of the artist.

It’s also one of the most aggressively self-indulgent things you’ll ever come across, and without anything resembling a story it eventually becomes a chore to sit through; memories of Bob Dylan’s infamous Renaldo and Clara occasionally sprang to mind. Non-fans of Cave or his music would be best advised to steer clear. 

The general premise is to present “A Day in the Life of…” Cave, during which he has breakfast with fellow Bad Seed Warren Ellis, works on his latest album at his home studio, chats with Ray Winstone and Kylie Minogue during car rides that may or may not be fantasy sequences, and watches Scarface with his two (young) sons (in what is a recurring theme throughout the movie, Cave initially seems to paint himself like a great dad in this scene – until you realize what he is showing his kids is wildly inappropriate).

And he does a lot more, too – a lot more than you’d think might be conceivable in a single day. But that concept doesn’t go much further than the title: for all other intents and purposes, this is a collection of Nick Cave vignettes that could have taken place at any place, at any time, and the film doesn’t really seem to care if it reflects an actual day in Cave’s life. 

At its best, the film is all-too-believable in its portrayal of Cave: he’s irrepressibly self-indulgent, spewing overbearing philosophical mumbo-jumbo through voiceover narration whenever not onscreen (which is precious little) and talking about himself whenever he is. He’s an unabashed diva, and the film is a fearlessly pretentious journey into his mind.

But the self-examination also leads to some film’s more delightful asides. One of the more diverting sequences showcases Cave examining one of his early concerts through a series of black and white photographs, dictating his travails to a team of archivists and detailing precisely how a German fan urinated on one of his bandmates (like Kevin Costner examining the Zapruder Film frame-by-frame in JFK, he uses a pointer to denote important visual cues). 

20,000 Days on Earth was written and directed by Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard (and co-written, of course, by Cave himself), who had previously directed both music videos and behind-the-scenes documentaries for Cave and The Bad Seeds; for the more casual fan, their previous work is likely to offer more insight into the man and his music.

But for those who have drank the Cave kool-aid, 20,000 Days on Earth is an absolute must: not a raw and naked portrait in the traditional sense, but a fascinating insight into how the man sees himself – and wants to be seen. 

It helps that the film is beautifully shot by Erik Wilson (The Double) and scored, featuring a number of soothing Cave songs (many from the Push the Sky Away album); even when the film starts to drag (while only 97 minutes, it feels considerably longer), there’s usually something interesting to listen to or look at on screen. 

As a more casual fan of not only Cave’s music, but also his work as a writer on The Proposition and Lawless, 20,000 Days was a priceless journey into the Nick Cave experience, but one that left me without the desire to get to know him any further.

Seen at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival 2014.

20,000 Days on Earth

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Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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