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'20,000 Days on Earth' examines the whys and wherefores of Nick Cave

 '20,000 Days on Earth' examines the whys and wherefores of Nick Cave
Nick Cave is “brilliant at being Nick Cave,” as a co-director put it, in the film. (Sean Porter / Sundance Film Festival)

"20,000 Days on Earth" can be regarded as a genuine fake documentary, or a fake genuine one, but either way, this examination of the whys and wherefores of indie rock star Nick Cave is an unusual and nonformulaic cinematic enterprise and an adventurous film by any standard.

Directed by Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard, visual artists and longtime friends of Cave, "Days on Earth" is both an examination of the contours of creativity and a look at the specifics of the creation of "Push the Sky Away," the latest album by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Fans of the group will be especially pleased, but specific knowledge of its history — or Cave's — is not necessary for enjoying what these folks are up to.

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The film opens with Cave in bed early one morning in his house in Brighton, England, waiting for his alarm to go off. Not just any morning, he announces in dramatic voice-over, but the start of "my 20,000th day on Earth," and a good place from which to get some perspective on what's come before.

Though Forsyth and Pollard have structured the film as a cinéma vérité look at that single day, most of the events in it were invented and staged for the camera at fabricated locations. But, as Cave himself has said, "we got closer to something through fiction, and that's really what the film is about."

"Days on Earth" is fortunate to have Cave as a co-conspirator. As co-director Pollard says, "Nick can't act, but he is brilliant at being Nick Cave." And he's also a charismatic individual with compelling death's head goods and a commanding speaking voice.

The filmmakers also were given access to the man's journals, and these likely lead to Cave's formidably articulate opening thoughts about his creative process. "I feel like a cannibal, always looking for someone to cook in a pot," he says. "Ask my wife, Susie [model Susie Bick], she's the one in the pot. We have an understanding, a pact. Every secret, every sacred moment, is cannibalized, inflated and distorted and spit out on the other side in the form of a song."

Now that he's got that off his chest, Cave begins his day, which includes a visit to psychoanalyst Darian Leader. He's not actually Cave's shrink — they'd never met before — but this real therapist asks unscripted questions to which Cave gives genuine answers.

Next, the singer heads to the putative basement home of the Nick Cave Collection, his personal archives, which are in a very different kind of building in his native Australia. But Cave's real archivist is there, and looking at old photos is the film's only nod to discussing the rocker's complex musical past.

It is the making of music that provides the "Days on Earth" through-line, as we see Cave writing songs by himself, rehearsing them with bandmates including Warren Ellis and finally performing at a real Sydney Opera House gala. "I love the feeling of a song before you understand it," the singer says in yet another revealing aside. "A moment when the song is still in charge and you hang on for dear life."

As Cave putatively drives himself from place to place on this very busy day, individuals from his past appear in the back seat of his car, and he ends up having improvised conversations with people who have been important in his life, including actor Ray Winstone, Australian pop star Kylie Minogue and former bandmate Blixa Bargeld.

In talking with analyst Leader, Cave reveals that what he fears most is loss of memory, because memory is inextricably tied to songwriting ("the retelling, mythologizing of memory"), and performing is still what he lives for.

"Something happens onstage," Cave says, "where you forget who you are and become someone else." As much as any documentary can, "20,000 Days on Earth" allows us to bear witness to what goes on in that process.

Twitter: @KennethTuran

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'20,000 Days on Earth'

MPAA rating: None

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Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes

Playing: In limited release

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