I swear, I’ve tried so hard — so, so hard — to like Nick Cave. I’ve listened to The Birthday Party and The Bad Seeds and Grinderman. I’ve seen the movies he’s written and tried reading one of his novels. I’ve done my due diligence, and always with an open mind, firm in the idea that his strange sense of humor and literary, almost Gothic leanings are all things that I should like. And despite my best, he’s just never clicked with me. Just understand that I’ve done my due diligence here, though it appears I still hold some type of hope for things working out, since I went into 20,000 Days on Earth, the new documentary on Cave, wanting to like it. And again, I tried. And again, it just didn’t quite work for me. I think that last bit’s important, since — like so many documentaries — your interest in the movie is likely tied to your interest in the subject. This might even be magnified with 20,000 Days on Earth, which is a film that gives context to Cave, despite weaving in and out of different points of his life. 20,000 Days assumes the audience already has a familiarity with its subject, which makes sense. Why else would you be watching a Nick Cave documentary?
The idea here is to examine Cave in his (obviously) 20,000th day on Earth. This is accomplished through dialogues (possibly scripted, but it’s difficult to discern) with friends and family, mixed in with footage of Cave and his band, The Bad Seeds, recording and performing live. While the structure shies away from the normal talking head format found in most docs, the conceit is mostly just repackaged. For the most part, the film is Cave pontificating — often at far too much length — on his life, reminiscing on milestones in different formats, whether it be an interview, digging through archived photos or inexplicably and somewhat surrealistically taking car rides with famous friends like Ray Winstone and Kylie Minogue. Much of 20,000 Days is built upon the motif of old age, but also of memory, whether it be through the act of storytelling or the physical act of recording, on cassette tapes or on paper or — in a metatextual sense — on film. Cave’s spent the majority of his life writing and recording ideas, so transferring all that into the medium of film makes perfect sense. But beyond just a sketched-in theme, these ideas have no bigger purpose.
The more naturalistic scenes involving music work a little better, but those, too, are uneven. The recording sessions can be interesting but often go on too long. It all comes together, however, with a live performance that’s centered inside the movie’s climax. This works best because it’s the only time the film has any true energy. Mix in a handful of strong, striking images, and 20,000 Days is occasionally interesting in its construction. But don’t expect to get the most out of the film unless you’re an admirer of Cave himself. Not Rated.
Plays Thursday, Oct. 23, at 7 p.m. at Fine Arts Theatre.