Most music documentaries are designed to reach the existing fan base for a particular artist or type of music. Modest ambitions often come with the territory, if only because it's difficult to convince general audiences to spend time and money on unfamiliar artists. Created by co-directors Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard in collaboration with rock icon Nick Cave, 20,000 Days on Earth comes from another place entirely, one where music-film conventions and marketplace concerns don't apply.
Ostensibly a portrait of a single day in Cave's life — his 20,000th — the film walks the line between documentary and fiction to examine the mysteries at the heart of the creative process. It may not find an audience beyond Cave's international legion of fans, but anyone with a stake in where art comes from or how it is made will find much to consider here.
20,000 Days on Earth began as promotional footage for Cave's latest album, 2013's Push the Sky Away, but some saw a chance to do much more. Inspired by access to Cave and his collaborators' work in the studio and his voluminous notebooks, Forsyth and Pollard set up a series of artificial encounters and scenarios to inspire a fictional narrative of a day in Cave's life in his home of Brighton, England. The directors identified locations and created sets, but what happens in front of the camera is left to Cave and the film's other subjects.
Key scenes feature Cave discussing his childhood with prominent Freudian psychoanalyst Darian Leader; visiting the Nick Cave Archive (which exists at the Arts Centre in Cave's hometown of Melbourne, Australia) and its real-life director; working and talking with current and former collaborators including Warren Ellis, longtime songwriting partner and member of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds; and finally performing live with the band and a small orchestra at the Sydney Opera House.
On paper, the film's basic methods seem comically pretentious, but Cave's confidence, openness and lack of ego combine to make the results natural and real. It's hard to think of another artist who could have pulled this off without irony or self-parody.
The planned spontaneity of individual scenes reflects one of the film's key themes — the transformative power of performance — while Cave's intermittent and well-written narration introduces carefully considered ideas. He's obsessed with how memory informs artistic expression and returns often to the need for fearlessness and hard work. "The worth of an idea never becomes apparent until you do it," he says. Some of the sonic and verbal experiments he undertakes on camera don't amount to anything, and a lot of artists wouldn't want anyone to see them, but they illustrate without explanation how small failures are often crucial to the creative process.
The film's title is no accident. It's an ideal way to frame a meditation on creativity while pointing the way toward even larger and more universal themes: How should we spend our time and find meaning in our lives? "All our days are numbered," Cave helpfully reminds us. Any film that can make you examine your own life and purpose has earned a place on the big screen — no matter how large the audience.