‘20,000 Days on Earth’ Review: A Sly and Shadowy Day in the Life of a Star

Drafthouse Films

Nick Cave is a myth. He also exists. The inherent tension between the musical icon and the person beneath is hardly new. Plenty of concert films have mixed legendary performance footage with vignettes of real life, showing the coexistence of these two identities. 20,000 Days on Earth, however, is not your typical music documentary. Directors Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard are disinterested in simply balancing Cave’s persona and his more humdrum moments. Watching a celebrity take out the trash or brush his teeth is mostly a curiosity, after all, more the arena of the tabloid than the documentary. This directing team deconstructs stardom a bit differently, creating something new.

The film is the story of a single, fictionalized day: Cave’s 20,000th on Earth. The opening credits run up the clock of his life from birth until just before his 55th birthday, if you do the math. The ticking of this counter is alternated with a barrage of video clips displayed on a tower of televisions, speeding through these five and a half decades. Then, everything is silence. Cave stumbles out of bed and plods over to the bathroom beneath his own philosophical voiceover introduction. It’s clear in these opening moments that this is more an exercise of style and presence than of humdrum truth.

From here on out the film is a series of vignettes, structured more like or All That Jazz than Searching for Sugar Man or 20 Feet from Stardom. Cave spends time in the recording studio, visits his archives, and hangs out with band mate Warren Ellis. Later in the evening he performs for two audiences, one in a small club and one in a massive concert hall. All of this is presented as a single, extremely busy day in the life of a rock star. Yet Forsyth and Pollard never really attempt to convince an audience of their rearrangement of time. This is a transparently fictionalized documentary, or rather a documentary clothed in the robes of a dream.

Punctuating this atmosphere of truth wrapped in fiction are three short scenes set in Cave’s car. Old friends appear in the back seat to chat, the conversations genuine but their location in the timeline of the film obviously the stuff of magic. He is visited by actor Ray Winstone, former bandmate Blixa Bargeld, and Kylie Minogue, with whom he made his biggest hit back in 1996. The conversations are spontaneous, unscripted discourses on fame, each friend forcing Cave to consider himself from a slightly different angle. Bargeld represents what might have been, Minogue the realities of fame and Winstone the construction of performance, though these themes inevitably bleed into one another. They are like a trio of Dickensian ghosts, Bargeld especially so. He and Cave had not spoken since they split in 2003, making this reunion a special treat for fans and a fascinating moment for the uninitiated.

It’s an introspective, slow-moving journey backward into the life of a man who puts a great deal of effort into looking effortlessly cool. The musician’s languid style is matched by the film. Cave lives in Brighton, a rainy seaside resort town on the coast of England, its aging landmarks jutting silently into the Channel. There is a haze, a weathered air of experience and gloom about the proceedings. Forsyth and Pollard, aided by the eye of cinematographer Erik Wilson, have placed Cave’s life into this blurred mirage by clever use of the landscape. Even the film’s happiest moments are shadowy. Cave watches Scarface on the couch with his two sons, hardly a sunny choice. The conversation with Minogue feels snatched from the world of Holy Motors, the pop star bringing an eerily angelic air to the back of the car as Cave drives into the night.

It goes without saying that this is a must-see for fans, a given that may not have anything to do with the accomplishments of Forsyth and Pollard. 20,000 Days on Earth is in every moment a film about the specificity of Cave and the mythology he has crafted for himself. Its triumph is in its assumption that within this body of work, in which the star persona is part of the art, there is something to be gleaned by the uninitiated as well. Gloomy, enigmatic and oddly seductive, 20,000 Days on Earth is unlike anything else this year.

20,000 Days on Earth is now playing in NYC and expands to L.A., Boston, San Francisco, Philadelphia and Seattle next week.

Daniel is a freelance critic living in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared at Nonfics, The Film Experience, The Brooklyn Rail, Indiewire, and Dok.Revue.