20,000 Days on Earth is a highly polished, carefully constructed docu-fiction hybrid about singer-songwriter Nick Cave, an artist who’s all about construction, polish (dig those dapper suits), and self-invention. Directors Jane Pollard and Iain Forsyth were previously commissioned by Cave to film 14 short making-of documentaries packaged with the recent reissue of Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds’ discography. So they have, in their way, already made their definitive-ish biographical portrait of Cave, his band, and his music. This is not that.
Instead, 20,000 Days takes the form of an imagined day in the life of Cave, as he drives his luxury car to his therapist, has lunch with bandmate Warren Ellis, heads to an archive loaded with bric-à-brac from his past (a scene that includes a hilariously detailed breakdown on an instance when a German concertgoer urinated on Birthday Party bassist Tracey Pew that plays like a deconstruction scene from JFK), and snacks on pizza while watching Scarface with his twin sons. In between, we’re treated to scenes of Cave working through material for his latest Bad Seeds album, Push the Sky Away, live concert footage, and chats with past collaborators Ray Winstone and Kylie Minogue.
For better, 20,000 Days is a decidedly fans-only affair. While the film is seemingly accessible as a portrait of an artist who seems particularly attuned to his own creative process, and particularly adept at describing this attunement (Cave has given several long-form lectures on the peculiar metaphysics of songcraft), it’s unlikely that many who aren’t already whole-hog Bad Seeds fans would be able to stomach much of Cave’s self-styled pomposity. By his own admission, the musician “was always a kind of ostentatious bastard,” and that whole persona bears out across the film. It’s there in his description of a God he doesn’t believe in coming alive in his songwriting, and it’s there in the way his voice sort of lilts upward in self-satisfaction after a particularly adroit turn of phrase.
Still, it’s this sort of practiced pomposity—the well-tailored suits, the jewelry, the ability to knock out locutions like “the never-ending drip feed of eroticism” with the ease of someone effortlessly nailing self-pitched dingers—that many of Cave’s admirers respond to. His arrogance is more of an inheritance than a warranted affectation. He’s allowed to be so full of himself because he’s just that good: one of the most talented songwriters (even if he took some heat for rhyming “Hannah Montana” with “African savannah” on a recent record) and riotously entertaining performers in the history of popular music, full stop.
20,000 Days gives Cave an opportunity to present himself, knowingly, as a literary construction. He’s deeply intelligent, and somehow genteel and sophisticated even when he’s describing on-stage urination. It’s not exactly a “revealing” documentary, if shaking out dirt is to be taken as a metric by which these sorts of biographical sketches should be judged. Aided by Pollard and Forsyth’s meticulous direction (including a climatic concert scene that seamlessly cross-cuts between other performances across Cave’s career), Cave only plays the cards he wants. But in a backhanded way, this considered, half-fictional approach perfectly serves an artist who has always been in the process of making and remaking his own mercurial image.
Berlinale runs from February 6—16.