Film Review – 20,000 Days on Earth


For what I am about to admit, the great Goth council will show up at my door and take away my Goth Card ™. But… I’ve never been a fan of Nick Cave.

I appreciate what he does. I understand and respect his influence. But his music has never moved me, and he doesn’t make me swoon. So I was able to go into 20,000 Days on Earth with no expectations, knowing very little about it, waiting to see if it made me like Cave more… or less.

Knowing something about the film beforehand would have helped, actually, as 20,000 Days on Earth is a fictional documentary. It’s Nick Cave playing Nick Cave. There is no official Nick Cave archive in a bunker in Brighton, England. Friends and co-workers such as Kylie Minogue and Blixa Bargeld don’t actually appear in Cave’s car for a chat as he drives through the rain. (Digression – can I please have a documentary about Blixa Bargeld? Please?) Cave’s chat with his therapist is not real (the therapist, Darian Leader is a real psychoanalyst, but does not, apparently count Cave as one of his patients).

So what is the point of 20,000 Days?

From a cinematography point of view, the film is beautiful, with gorgeous lighting and shots, and an intriguing use of angles and space.

As a means for Cave to expound on the topics of rock stardom and the role of the writer, the film is a vehicle for philosophy that may or may not be grounded in logic and common sense. There are beautiful references to writing, making music, and creating something of substance that seem designed to encourage other creatives, but they tend to come from a place of entitlement, by someone lucky (and talented) enough to be able to work full time at their art.

The most honest scene in 20,000 Days, the one thing that probably is true, is when Cave joins Bad Seeds collaborator Warren Ellis for lunch, and they sit around Ellis’ kitchen table, eating pasta and eel and bananas, talking about old times and a particular gig they did with Nina Simone.

Much of the film covers the writing, recording and live performances of Cave’s 2013 album Push The Sky Away. In these scenes, interspersed throughout, filmmakers Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard capture the only other definitely truthful aspect of the film; the process of bringing Cave’s art (the words on paper) to life.

As a piece of art, 20,000 Days on Earth is innovative, forcing the viewer to confront what is real and what is fake, and forcing them to accept that most of the time, they have no way of knowing. We have no choice but to accept the film at face value and take what we can from it. Fans who were expecting a reasonably truthful, straight up biographical documentary might leave the cinema not quite knowing what they just experienced. Whether they leave pleased with what they saw is a different story.

For my part, I don’t know that 20,000 Days on Earth changed my opinion of Cave either way. I appreciate what he does, but the music still doesn’t rock me. I appreciate the art and effort, and even the persona, which he freely admits in interviews to be mostly false. And I appreciate the film itself, even with the fictional pretense – maybe true fans need to know about Cave’s real life, but I don’t. But even a fictional work, be it film or novel or song, needs to have a seed within it that makes it feel genuine. Not honest, necessarily, but genuine. And genuine is the one thing that seems missing here.