The rock biography is a tough form to work with these days. With the expansion of the documentary form and the rise of the “mockumentary”, the format is rife with expectations and clichés. “20,000 Days On Earth” manages to avoid all of this by sidestepping any concept of straightforward documentary. Instead, the film functions as a sort of biography of the myth, rather than the man. Instead of exploring who Nick Cave is as a man, it focuses more on elucidating the persona that he’s spent the last 30 years constructing. It’s a photograph of a reflection, rather than a portrait. Helmed by a couple of talented visual artists, the film attempts to parse out the various motivations and aspirations of the artist over the course of a semi-fictional day in his life. Nick says he’s not interested in things that can be easily understood (I’m paraphrasing), so this film resists straightforward analysis in an absolutely enthralling fashion.
Nick speaks with a psychiatrist about his childhood and adult fears. Nick pecks away at this typewriter, talking about his writing process. Nick drives around Brighton, occasionally accompanied by mental projections of his friends (played by his actual friends). He speaks rapturously about his love for his wife and his respect for his collaborators. Nick heads to the studio where The Bad Seeds help him shape his rambling notebooks into songs. He visits his archive, a bunker-like facility where a team of librarians maintain and catalogue his memories. Finally, we see him in full flight, performing for an adoring, worshipful audience in Sydney.
Throughout the film, themes of absence and presence are explored as a duality. It’s all about how someone can be “there” and “not there” at the same time, and with this exploration Nick is, in his typically oblique way, tipping us as to what to expect from his life story. Nick shares an early memory about his father coming to one of his gigs and not announcing his presence until after the show was over. This concept of someone being present through their absence is really the crucial point of the film, as it dovetails with the modernidea of the rock star and the symbolism presented by that archetype, as well as the nature of celebrity and the shifting nature of identity. We, as the audience, think that we know our favourite musicians so well, but in reality we are enthralled with a reflection. We are in love with a shadow. They set up these larger than life personalities, which are the canvasses onto which we project all of our hopes and fears. They cleave through our souls with hollow blades, knowing that in the end we will never know the person behind the mask. This film acknowledges this fact, and almost relishes its own falseness.
In the end, we still receive an affecting portrait of an artistic persona, capped off with the greatest montage sequence I have even seen in a rock doc. It’s been a long time since anyone has broken new ground with the form, and this film provides a template for a way forward.