20,000 Days on Earth Review

Playfully and artfully blurring the lines between documentary convention and impressionistic new wave cinema, 20,000 Days on Earth looks at now mellowed but still highly prolific Australian rock icon Nick Cave as he reflects on where his career has been and where he’s going in the future. It’s a structurally strange, but fully realized work that benefits greatly from Cave’s candid point of view and a unique style being utilized by filmmakers and artists Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard.

Somewhere between a personal essay, a Jim Jarmush-style lark, and a talking head documentary look at Cave as he heads towards his senior citizen years, the film very loosely frames itself around the musician’s 20,000th day of life. I say loosely because there’s clearly more than one day of shooting required to make a film like this and no way everything could have credibly been packed into this film and still have it make sense.

That’s kind of the point, because for all of the authenticity on display (Cave in the studio working on music, visits with people he still works with), there’s a healthy dose of artificiality on display that’s intrinsic to the fabric of the film. Randomly, he’ll be driving in a car and chatting with actor Ray Winstone or singer Kylie Minogue (the latter of whom has he appearance cheekily and hilariously telegraphed early on) for no real reason except for them to share some random anecdotes. Other times he’ll kind of stop the show to analyze projected footage of someone urinating onstage during a German concert with the detail of the Zapruder film.

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It’s a rare kind of bio-pic where the subject is front and centre and willing to admit his own faults and missteps in life – from being a junkie that can barely remember the 1980s to allowing The Birthday Party to become booked as a vile and dangerous band – that’s told entirely in small stories and memories that will appeal to more than just diehard Cave fans.

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Ultimately, the film ends up being kind of hard to describe, but its intention is quite easy to discern: it’s about finding the meaning of life via brief narratives and applying those lessons to the context of your current existence. And you don’t need to be a huge Cave fan to get caught up in it. Forsyth and Pollard have a decidedly cinematic style of shooting, alternating between sometimes uncomfortable close-ups and well staged two-shots that make it known that what you’re watching has obviously been staged to some degree. They aren’t trying to pull a fast one on audiences expecting documentary truth because their subject is being truthful enough even when he admittedly can’t bring himself to tell all of his own story.

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