Thursday 26 April 2018

Rock: 20,000th day in the life of singer Nick Cave

Life imitating art: Nick Cave starts in a fictional documentary about the 20,000th day of his life.
Life imitating art: Nick Cave starts in a fictional documentary about the 20,000th day of his life.
Eamon Sweeney

Eamon Sweeney

Nick Cave turned 57 last Monday. Always a man to defy convention, the perennially popular musician, author, screenwriter and occasional actor marked the week of his birthday with the release of one of the most audacious, honest and unusual rock films ever made.

20,000 Days on Earth is one of the strangest but most satisfying flicks you could choose to catch down in your local omniplex this weekend. It is not exactly a biopic, documentary or tour film, but a dramatisation of a fictional day in the life of one of the world's most singular songwriters as he lives the 20,000th day of his existence.

While at times there is a distinct whiff of vanity project off much of its contents, Cave gets away with it by adding plenty of substance to his style. At one point Cave reads out a last will and testament that decrees that he will leave all of his money and assets to the creation of a Nick Cave memorial museum. "It seems like I was always an ostentatious bastard," Cave cackles.

This isn't the first time Cave has attempted to nail what makes him tick. In The Secret History of the Love Song, a lecture accompanied by songs that he delivered at the Liss Ard Foundation in West Cork and performed in Dublin's Gaiety, Cave reveals that the death of his father in a car crash when he was 19 is pivotal to his development as an artist.

"The loss of my father, I found, created in my life a vacuum, a space in which my words began to float and collect and find their purpose," Cave said. "The great W.H. Auden said 'The so-called traumatic experience is not an accident, but the opportunity for which the child has been patiently waiting - had it not occurred, it would have found another - in order that its life come a serious matter.' The death of my father was the 'traumatic experience' Auden talks about."

Nick's father Colin Cave was an English and Mathematics teacher in Victoria, Australia. He organised the first ever symposium on the notorious Australian bushranger of Irish descent Ned Kelly, a divisive figure still regarded as both a villain and a folk hero. The young Cave idolised Kelly. During one of the psychoanalyst scenes in 20,000 Days on Earth, he reveals that when his father read him the opening chapter of Vladimir Nabokov's infamous novel Lolita aloud, he noticed that his Dad became completely transformed.

During 20,000 Days on Earth, Cave delves into his drug addict past, but the portrait of the artist in 2014 that emerges is one of a hard-working grafter who kisses his wife goodbye in the morning, goes off to his office, puts in a dutiful nine to five shift and spends the evenings watching TV and eating pizza with his sons. The film is also crammed with golden anecdotes and plenty of laugh out loud moments. Warren Ellis' yarn about Nina Simone ingesting champagne, cocaine and sausages before a performance at the Nick Cave curated Meltdown Festival is one of the funniest scenes I've seen in years.

But Cave and his cohorts go a lot further than just compiling a series of entertaining interviews and funny set-pieces. Nick explains to actor Ray Winstone why playing live is the most fulfilling part of what he does. "I live for it," he tells Winstone as he drives him around Brighton in his Jaguar. "There is something that happens on stage where you are transported." His friendship with the charismatic actor, who is etched on the popular consciousness for his Bet Fair TV ads touting odds for the next goalscorer and other markets during a live match, is another unexpected facet of Cave's curious life.

Behind the scenes footage of the making of the most recent Bad Seeds album, Push the Sky Away, in La Fabrique in France (a luxurious-looking residential studio that also happens to house the largest archive of classical music on vinyl in Europe) offer an absorbing insight into the creative process complete with Cave ad-libbing to Lionel Richie and Warren Ellis hilariously playing the likeable class clown. Live footage from the Sydney Opera House is equally riveting.

But underpinning everything in 20,000 Days on Earth is a strong sense of conviction that our collective life times are short and precious. Cave says the ultimate aim of his song-writing, and the creative arts in general, is to defy death and create something immortal, while inspiring others to do the same in the process.

In addition to entertainment, music invests our lives with meaning and gives it a soundtrack. It endures in a world where we cannot. In audaciously going where precious few musicians have ever gone before, Nick Cave has produced one of the most profound, insightful and inspiring works of musical film-making of his entire career.

Several commentators who have praised 20,000 Days on Earth rightly note that you don't necessarily have to be a Nick Cave fan to enjoy it, although it undoubtedly helps. On the back of this extraordinary project, Cave is guaranteed to gain even more fans and admirers in the coming weeks and months.

20,000 Days on Earth is out now in selected cinemas nationwide. It will be released on DVD on October 10.

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