About 10 minutes into "One More Time with Feeling," when Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds begin playing the first of an album's worth of songs, a wave of sadness surges, bone-deep and breathtaking. The craftsmanship and beauty of the track, "Jesus Alone," is undeniable, but something else, something ineffable, is unfolding in the moment, as it will throughout this haunting film about creativity and loss.
The details of the loss that shattered Cave and his family are never spelled out in Andrew Dominik's documentary. For those not aware that one of Cave's sons, 15-year-old Arthur, died last year from injuries suffered in a fall from a cliff, it might seem that the movie teases out the heart of the matter at unnecessary length. But it becomes powerfully clear that the director's strategy echoes the instinctive response of Cave and his wife, Susie, to the unspeakable: The devastating, unchangeable truth is at the center of everything, affecting everything yet discrete, sealed off, beyond reason, explanation or understanding.
Dominik, whose feature "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" was scored by Cave and his longtime collaborator Warren Ellis, moves between studio performances of the songs from "Skeleton Tree" — the album that Cave and the band were recording at the time of Arthur's death — and interviews with Cave. The filmmaker's questions are sensitive yet penetrating, the musician's responses thoughtful, eloquent and pained. Cave's voiceover commentary punctuates the onscreen proceedings, his musings forming an overlay of (dis)harmony, syncopated and questioning.
It's no surprise that Cave, a master of the dirge whose body of work has largely been concerned with "anxiety, dread and anguish," as he himself sums it up, takes no comfort in platitudes. The word "grief" is spoken only once in the film as it circles the trauma that has led Cave — a novelist and screenwriter as well as a songwriter — to repudiate the idea of narrative, with its structure and wrap-up and morals. Life, he insists, is not a story. Rather than a beginning, middle and end, he sees, or wants to see, the simultaneity of past, present and future (an idea explored in the recently released "Arrival," which also involves the death of a child).
Using a specially built camera, Dominick and cinematographers Alwin W. Küchler and Benoît Debie have shot the documentary in the rare combination of 3D and black-and-white. The added dimension has the paradoxical effect of enhancing the sense of intimacy while inserting a level of distancing artifice. The aesthetic that Dominik has crafted is a pitch-perfect expression of Cave's grappling with matters of time and space. It's gorgeous and ghostly.
In the reflective surface of a piano or the emptiness of a hotel room mirror, the shimmering monochromatic palette suggests the unseen and the barely glimpsed. The notion of something spectral behind moments fixed in memory is amplified in snapshots by Czech photographer Miroslav Tichy, an outsider artist whose work Cave admires.
"One More Time with Feeling" is as much about the creative process, including the making of the film itself, as it is about heartache. Dominik includes time-outs to recalibrate and focus the 3D image, and shows the bulky camera on a track circling Cave as he performs. Whether they're roving through and beyond the studio or gazing out in stillness from the mixing console, the cameras are attuned to the connections that remain, just as the Rasputin-bearded Ellis is constantly, lovingly alert to Cave's mood.
Superstition and magical thinking inevitably arise — how could they not when you're longing for the impossible, for the reversal of brutal fact? Susie, poignantly, is vexed by the black frame around a childhood drawing of Arthur's. She welcomes the busyness of her work as a clothing designer, while her husband feels his creativity damaged. Yet "Skeleton Tree" and the film about its making offer proof that his talent as one of rock 'n' roll's premier symbolist poets is undiminished.
With this album, Cave says, he let go of his usual fastidiousness about lyrics, giving priority to a more improvisational energy. The songs document the collective emotional state of the musicians, all of whom knew Arthur. When Cave's son Earl visits the studio, he's all smiles and exuberance. He's also a boy who has lost his twin. The ghosts are everywhere in Dominik's exquisitely tender film, and when Cave sings "With my voice I am calling you," he turns a simple line into a timeless lament.
'One More Time with Feeling'
Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes