In one Nick Cave song, a pedophiliac outlaw caps a murder spree by killing the devil himself. In another, the narrator muses on Miley Cyrus while seeking the “God particle” down a boulevard lined with burning trees. Cave is fluent in apocalyptic imagery and the Bible; his songs are filled with references to Sappho and Auden and Berryman. You never see the Australian musician wearing anything but rakish suits: striped slacks and jackets cut comically tight, shirt collars rising nearly to Elvis heights. Even setting aside his superhuman body of work, spanning films and novels as well as songs, it’s easy to forget Nick Cave is a real person and not just a fantastic silhouette.
See also: Our film review of 20,000 Days on Earth
It’s jarring, then, to see Cave wearing an innocent blue polo shirt in one of the early scenes in 20,000 Days on Earth, Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard’s film about an imagined day in the artist’s life. This isn’t a Glenn Danzig-buying-kitty-litter moment — it’s not a betrayal of Cave’s image to see him in dapper shirtsleeves. But it is New Information of a kind we don’t get very often. And there is plenty of new information about Cave, however minor, in 20,000 Days on Earth: This is a profile, shaped as a fictional documentary, that colors in our understanding of the artist and the person while revealing nothing that might spoil that alluring silhouette.
Nearly every fussily lit detail in the film, from the walls of Cave’s office to the color of his Jaguar, will reveal something to those curious about just how far normalcy penetrates into his life. We see Cave recalling to a therapist his “wonderful childhood,” his early, rather innocent sexual experiences, and his father, who read a young Cave the first chapter of Lolita, but died when he was 19, only seeing him perform twice. We hear Cave’s exaltations of memory and his fear of losing it with age. We see Cave sharing concert stories with longtime musical collaborator Warren Ellis over eel and tea. We see him in his archive, captioning photographs of his early post-punk group, the Birthday Party, in which a musician punches out an audience member who was peeing onstage. In one fleeting scene, we see Cave — now fully suited — eating pizza in front of the TV with his tween-age sons, all three of them smiling as they mouth along to Pacino in Scarface. Cave fans will know he has children, but to see the silhouette with them is a different thing altogether.
Cave often talks about transformation, and how he seeks it — and sometimes achieves it — through live performance. Two concert scenes toward the end are awkwardly spliced, but still capture this. There is Cave, in suit and glittering high collar, his knees on the stage, grasping and making eye contact with the teary-eyed obsessives in the front row. We witness him building what he calls “the psychodrama” with his audience, surrendering himself to them and to the someone else he has always wanted to be: an ambassador from that fearsome realm of his songs and stories. It’s Cave’s total commitment to this demonic presence that places him and his band, the Bad Seeds, among the most captivating performers in rock ‘n’ roll. At their best moments, he is not a man singing for a crowd, but a thin shadow dragging us into a world of his own making, a world of utter brutality and all-consuming love — a world far more interesting than our own.
The most intriguing moments of 20,000 Days on Earth come when Cave the person explains Cave the image. The film demands we contemplate where one begins and the other ends. “At the end of the 20th century, I ceased to be a human being,” Cave says in the very first line, explaining how he cannibalizes his marriage, and by extension his whole life, for material. This is a requirement of being Nick Cave — and the man is keenly aware of the all-consuming duties and limitations he faces.
When the actor Ray Winstone appears in the Jag, asking whether he ever thought of reinventing himself, the response is immediate: Cave, gesturing cooly, says that the rock star is “something you can draw in one line.” To complicate or change it would ruin it. Which is why 20,000 Days on Earth does not, and cannot, show us more than the briefest glimpses of Cave the father and Cave the husband, and absolutely nothing of Cave the middle-aged bloke who might rather put on sweatpants (if he even exists). Most rock stars, especially ones of Cage’s stature and age, would allow a little public distance between their real selves and their performative ones. But Cave never lets any daylight shine upon the dim world of his work. He never betrays the silhouette. Even after 20,000 Days on Earth, we will wonder whether, under all those fancy suits, Cave is just like us. But, for the sake of the beautiful, bleak dominion he’s created, we should never really know.