It's not necessary to be a fan of Nick Cave to enjoy the compelling, alluring circumnavigation of his universe that is 20,000 Days on Earth. It may help, granted. But British multimedia artists Jane Pollard and Iain Forsyth, long-time collaborators of the singer, songwriter and writer making here their feature film debut, are not doing a film for devotees; rather, a treatise on the creative impulse and process as seen through the eyes someone who once gave a lecture on "the secret life of the love song".
This isn't a documentary portrait of the Australian-born singer and songwriter, one of the most literate and accomplished to have come out of the alternative post-punk scene of the late 1970s/1980s, though it does feature a great deal of documentary footage (of rehearsals, studio recordings or live performances). Instead, Ms. Pollard and Mr. Forsyth use his work as an entry way into his world, following what would be a "typical day" in Mr. Cave's life, only one being lived by a composite image of his, assembled for the benefit of the cameras.
Guided by Mr. Cave's impressively self-analytical voiceover, punctuated by conversations with friends or creative foils behind the wheel of his car, 20,000 Days on Earth unfolds as an attempt to explain the creative process that can only be seen and understood sensorially, not explained away in words or sentences. It reveals the extent to which specific creativity is tied up to each artist's personal history and references, and in Mr. Cave's case it is at the same time refuge and prison, escape and harness, even though recognizing that there is a common centre to an artistic career - the desire to become someone else, bigger and larger than life.
And, despite the myriad possible reasons that make anyone choose art, there is always an unlikely pairing of inspiration and technique required by creativity, a need to keep hammering away at it, that justifies Mr. Cave's definition, at one point, of artists and songwriters as "technicians of the sacred". That turn of phrase turns out to be the key to this portrait of the artist as a man and of the man as a performer, slyly set up by Ms. Pollard and Mr. Forsyth in the glossy widescreen visuals of a music video, rapturously soundtracked by Mr. Cave and his regular accomplice Warren Ellis, but consistently gnawing at the truth, occasionally painful, always hard-working, underneath the facade.
It's a performance, they seem to be saying, but there's truth underneath it; you just have to dig quietly and that's what this haunting, utterly spellbinding voyage into the heart of creation is. You don't have to be a Nick Cave fan going in to enjoy it, but you might just as well become one coming out.
20,000 DAYS ON EARTH
United Kingdom, USA 2014
Directors Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard; screenwriters Mr. Forsyth, Ms. Pollard and Nick Cave; cinematographer Erik Wilson (colour, widescreen); composers Mr. Cave and Warren Ellis; designer Simon Rogers; editor Jonathan Amos; producers James Wilson and Dan Bowen; production companies Filmfour, Corniche Pictures, Pulse Films, The British Film Institute, and JW Films in association with PHI Films and Goldin Films
Screened November 17th 2014, Lisbon (DVD)