Nick Cave at his typewriter

Documenting the Self

Art, Celebrity and Storytelling in 20,000 Days on Earth

Legendary Australian musician Nick Cave crafts his own legacy in Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard’s formally unconventional music documentary, one that exchanges the genre’s standard talking heads and archival material for the songwriter’s own poetic musings and scripted exchanges. Through its fluid approach to reality and mythology – further complicated by its subject’s dual role as author and muse – the film has much to say about the process of artistic creation, writes Anthony Carew.

‘I gave up the idea of a private life years ago,’ said Nick Cave, in 2020. ‘I am just who I am. People can take me or leave me. I am not holding much back. All that obfuscation and mystery, it’s exhausting and unnecessary.’[1]Nick Cave, quoted in Sophie de Rosée, ‘Nick Cave: Singer, Songwriter … Shopkeeper’, Financial Times, 1 December 2020, <>, accessed 26 May 2021.

It was an interesting quote for the 63-year-old, a titanic musical figure in Australia and abroad, a songwriter’s songwriter and man of letters who, for many, wholly personifies the idea of the capital-a Artist. From his time with provocative post-punk outfits The Boys Next Door and The Birthday Party through his decades fronting Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds to his writing work as novelist (1989’s And the Ass Saw the Angel, 2009’s The Death of Bunny Munro) and screenwriter (2005’s The Proposition and 2012’s Lawless, both directed by John Hillcoat), Cave has carried himself not as a celebrity or content creator, but as a fearless spelunker descending into the dark and shadowy recesses of the human psyche, trading in imagery steeped in mythology, religion, folktales and Southern Gothic literature.

Of course, by 2020, even the most ornery recluse had succumbed to at least some form of social media. And with live shows – wherein Cave, the frontman in a dance with the primal, feels as if he exchanges unspoken psychodramas with those in the front row – at that time on the shelf and fans living in lockdown, perhaps it’s no surprise that Cave was doing press for an online store featuring personal polaroids and rock’n’roll ephemera for sale. In an era in which musicians are squeezed for output and hard up for income, even the great rock’n’roll saints need to shift merch.

This was the culmination of a process, for the artist, of letting more of the self through the fog of mythology. For years, he’d been answering questions from listeners and fans on the website The Red Hand Files, thoughtfully tackling the political and personal. And the personal truly came to bear with his 2016 LP Skeleton Tree, and the accompanying documentary about its making, One More Time with Feeling (Andrew Dominik, 2016). Following the death of Cave’s fifteen-year-old son Arthur in 2015, the album found the songwriter detailing grief and its horrors with candour; once again, Cave was exploring the darkness of human experience, but with a more personal, haunted quality than a provocative one.

Trace back to the previous Cave documentary, 20,000 Days on Earth (Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard, 2014), and you find the songwriter situated at a point part-way between the personal and the persona. Deliberately blurring the lines between fiction and non-fiction, it’s a largely scripted film – co-written by the subject and the two directors – chronicling Cave’s imagined 20,000th day alive. And, as with Virginia Woolf’s classic 1925 novel Mrs Dalloway, this chronicle of a singular day will span a whole lifetime. As a structure for a quasi documentary, it’s both ambitious and playful: not trying to merely observe or chronicle a musician, but to exist as a work of art in its own right.

20,000 Days on Earth is, at the very least, a film that approaches the required rockumentary tropes from artful angles. Rather than just being stitched together in editing, it’s written for the screen, approached with a predetermined structure in place. Rather than having Cave talk to-camera in a staged interview, he sits down with a therapist – a bespectacled interlocutor (Darian Leader) whose thoughtful nods and ‘tell me about your father’–style questions seem like a near parody of a Freudian psychoanalyst – who gets Cave to talk, among other things, about his formative experiences. Rather than montaging old photographs and video footage to accompany old hit singles, we tag along as Cave visits the (quite possibly made-up) ‘Nick Cave archives’, where he goes through old trinkets mailed home to his mum in his Berlin days. And rather than having celebrity talking heads testimonialise the musical greatness of the subject at hand (sorry, Bono), we instead witness Cave driving around the English seaside village of Brighton, engaged in conversation with the shimmering phantoms of Ray Winstone, Blixa Bargeld and Kylie Minogue – the presence of the last of these in the back seat evoking sweet memories of Leos Carax’s 2012 classic Holy Motors.

In its refusal to submit to a singular genre – indeed, in its ‘obfuscation and mystery’ – 20,000 Days on Earth has much to say about art making and mythology: on page, on stage and on screen. Playing more as an extension of its star than a regular fan-service rockumentary, the film openly invites discussions about its form, its refusal of format and the slippery notion of truth.

Cave chauffeurs Kylie Minogue

Truth and fiction

There’s a scene in the film in which we see Cave sitting down at a typewriter (where, in true boomer fashion, he types using two fingers). This image conveys the notion of Cave as an old-fashioned writer, the author of fantastical tales. But it’s also a tip of the cap to the fact that Cave co-wrote the very film we are seeing him in. Rather than a subject being observed, he’s an active participant in a work that’s, really, out to burnish his mythology.

Cave’s influence on 20,000 Days on Earth is most pronounced in the archly poetic voiceovers that recur throughout the film. ‘I always feel startled at the so-called real world,’ he says, early in proceedings; and, in turn, the documentary isn’t really out to chronicle such. Instead, it creates a cinematic space of Caveyness, one that is an extension of his art making. ‘It’s a world I’m creating,’ Cave says, in voiceover. ‘A world full of monsters and heroes, good guys and bad guys. It’s an absurd, crazy, violent world, where people rage away and God actually exists.’

Who’s to say how a documentary should be approached, where the lines should be drawn, or how a life, and a person, should be transposed to the screen?

Befitting someone too conceptually minded to subject themselves to the standard-issue rockumentary, Cave reveals self-awareness as he speaks in voiceover and semi-fictional sequences. He realises the necessity and limits of his rockstar persona, his neediness as a creator, and how art, be it in the writing or the performing, offers at once a refuge – a place to forget the self – and a forum to author a persona anew. Blending fiction and non-fiction is a way of furthering this conception. 20,000 Days on Earth is not intended to be an act of revelation, or even a humanising of its subject, but a work of art unto itself.

As such, it becomes a film about storytelling. Who’s to say how a documentary should be approached, where the lines should be drawn, or how a life, and a person, should be transposed to the screen? Having Cave so closely related to the film’s making doesn’t bring clarity, just confusion; where an outsider may see him with simplicity (as a great man making great work, say), the artist’s relationship to their own work, and sense of self, is always going to be more complicated. ‘Who knows their own story?’ Cave says, in one of the more artful, thoughtful narration gambits. ‘Certainly it makes no sense when we’re living in the midst of it. It’s all just clamour and confusion. It only becomes a story when we tell it, and retell it.’ As he puts it, this manifests in a process of ‘first creating the narrative of our lives, then keeping the story from dissolving into darkness’.

Cave on stage

Life as grist for art

20,000 Days on Earth begins with quite the flourish. In a breathless montage that immediately drops viewers deep into the life and times of Nicholas Edward Cave, we see the ephemera of his life flashing by on a bank of television screens. As a counter – the ascending inverse of the timer countdown of an action-movie bomb, but feeling just as tropey – steadily ticks on up, the screens cycle through photos of Cave in his childhood, the televisual fluff of his formative days (Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie), images of clichéd Australiana (koalas, beaches), the faces of formative influences (Lolita, Johnny Cash, Elvis) and illustrative imagery signposting developments in his life (a red double-decker London bus, a hypodermic needle piercing skin). We see all manner of clips of Cave in his 1980s heyday performing, strutting around the stage: a figure of defiance and rebellion. There’s a host of significant women: the recently departed Anita Lane, who was both lover and collaborator; Minogue, with whom he had an unexpected hit single, ‘Where the Wild Roses Grow’; PJ Harvey, whom Cave was romantically linked to in the 1990s; and Susie Bick, his wife, whom he met in 1999. The montage takes a turn towards normalcy – weddings, children, settling down – as Cave turns into an elder statesman, before ending as the counter stops at 19,999, on the eve of his imagined 20,000th day.

This is a great filmmaking device, and bravura way to open the movie. But it also suggests what’s one of the great themes at play here: how life, in both its fleeting moments and grand sweep, is grist for art. In talking about the process and elemental emotions of writing songs, Cave speaks of the relationship between songwriting and his marriage, publicly recognising a private bargain. ‘There’s an understanding between us, a pact,’ he says in voiceover, sounding at once apologetic, pained and gleefully triumphant, ‘where every secret, sacred moment that exists between a husband and a wife is cannibalised, and ground up and spat out the other side in the form of a song: inflated, and distorted, and monstrous.’

As documentary, 20,000 Days on Earth surveys Cave’s life only as it relates to his artwork; even his stories about, say, formative childhood times reading Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita are recounted in the context of his future writings. At the ‘archives’, looking at old photos, he connects people with the music that he’s made. There are droll observations (‘That’s me and Kylie – I’m wearing shorts there’) and humorous rock’n’roll anecdotes, but in a few moments Cave has to admit that he doesn’t recall the incidents captured on camera, or even whole stretches of time, due to his years of habitual heroin use (he cops to being a ‘junkie’, in so many words, in ‘therapy’ herein). He admits that 1987 ‘is a difficult year to remember’ in its entirety. Yet, in another moment, Cave confesses that his ‘biggest fear’, as an ageing man, is losing his memory. ‘Memory is what we are. I think that your very soul and your very reason to be alive is tied up in memory,’ he offers. His artistic output, Cave continues, is a collective work of world-building ‘created about those precious, original memories that define our lives and those memories that we spend our lives chasing after’.

There’s another great moment of filmmaking flourish in which a montage is matched to a Cave monologue, narrating his entire history of lust, leading up to meeting his wife: a grand devotional notable for its specific details, its roll call of sexualised and fantasised imagery, from ‘Carolyn Jones dying in Elvis [Presley’s] arms, Jackie O in mourning, Tinkerbell trapped in the drawer’ to ‘Wonder Woman and Barbarella and supermodels and Page 3 girls’ and even ‘the young girls at the Wangaratta pool lying on the hot concrete’. This moment, like the opening burst, is great cinema, again teasing at a greater theme: this time of memory, of the formative influences, images and experiences that linger throughout a life, that come out in artwork.

‘That’s what the process of songwriting is for me: the retelling of these stories; the mythologising of these stories,’ Cave offers. This is his most mortal conception of songwriting, entwining it with the fragility of memory. Elsewhere, in his poetic, sometimes pompous voiceovers, he talks about the process in more immortal shades: to write a song, he says, makes you feel ‘sort of godlike’ as you give birth to something, usher it into life. ‘The song is heroic, because the song confronts death,’ he declares. ‘The song is immortal and bravely stares down our own extinction.’ Making art is a way of fighting back against mortality, confronting the inevitability of its author’s imminent demise – not just in the way these songs grapple with the darkness of existence, but in the way they have their own life and will live on long after Cave himself has shuffled off this mortal coil. His songs will be the legacy of the life he’s lived, all his endless numbered days. 20,000 Days on Earth bears the fingerprints of a man who, in his very involvement, reveals himself as duly concerned with that legacy: wishing for this documentary, like his artistic corpus, to be preserved with its integrity intact.

A young Cave in an old photo

Celebrity mythology

‘At the end of the twentieth century, I ceased to be a human being,’ begins Cave’s opening narration. The gist of his conviction seems to be that now he is just a writer, someone who wakes up, spends all day at work (be it two-finger typewriting or ten-finger piano playing) and then does it all over again, day after day. But his contention is more convincing when you consider it in the context of celebrity. Cave is so famous and iconic that – even now, in his more ‘open’ present – he seems more like an idea or an avatar than a real human. And his willingness to participate in this documentary shows him to be someone who’s concerned with tending to his own mythology. The device of the ‘therapist’, herein, feels way too controlled and safe to resemble real therapy; when things get too personal – with talk about the death of Cave’s father, which happened when young Nick was but nineteen[2]See Simon Hattenstone, ‘Old Nick’, The Guardian, 23 February 2008, <>, accessed 27 May 2021. – Cave merely shuts down the conversation and moves on. Instead, his answers seem only ever to feed into the Cave mythos, to maintain the brand.

This isn’t necessarily a critique. After all, Cave’s status as an artist, in the most romantic evocation of that notion, is intrinsically entwined with myth-making, with turning away from any supposed notions of the ‘real’ self. ‘It’s all an invention,’ Cave says, when travelling in the car with Winstone. ‘As a child, I think I had a desperate need to change myself into something else,’ he confides. ‘I looked in the mirror and I wasn’t happy. I used to look at these people on the record covers and aspire to that.’ When he grew up and could surround himself with fellow artists, he witnessed firsthand ‘that power to transform yourself by what you can do with the imagination’.

20,000 Days on Earth is, then, a product of that imagination. There’s an interesting dialectic throughout between what is scripted and what is, perhaps, not. Sometimes it’s hard to tell: seeing the Bad Seeds in rehearsal seems entirely fly-on-the-wall, but a comic scene in which Cave and prolific collaborator Warren Ellis have lunch feels part unscripted (their stories about seeing performances by Jerry Lee Lewis and Nina Simone, the latter experience having just been turned into a book by Ellis[3]See ‘Nina Simone’s Gum by Warren Ellis’, Nick Cave official website, <>, accessed 27 May 2021.), part prefabricated (Ellis makes squid-ink pasta with eel; Cave instead opts for white bread and butter).

Throughout, there are also signs of the struggle between control and being out of control, Cave enthusing that his favourite phase of the songwriting process is before even he, the author, really knows what the song’s about, when he’s ‘hanging on for dear life’. Though he’s spent a lifetime carefully cultivating an image and toiling at a single-minded artistic pursuit, in those godlike moments of creation, Cave is also turning his fate over to chaos. ‘In the end, I’m not interested in that which I fully understand,’ he says, in his final voiceover. His songs are a way of summoning the unspoken into the open, he offers, like beckoning a sea monster up from the depths. ‘What performance and song is, to me, is finding a way to tempt the monster to the surface. To create a space where the creature can break through what is real and what is known to us.’ In both song and documentary, of course, ‘what is real’ is – like a sea monster, or a plate of eel pasta – slippery, and difficult to grasp. 20,000 Days on Earth’s great meaning comes from the fact that it never tries to grab on too tightly, never bothers trying to discern real from unreal, or the man from the myth.

1 Nick Cave, quoted in Sophie de Rosée, ‘Nick Cave: Singer, Songwriter … Shopkeeper’, Financial Times, 1 December 2020, <>, accessed 26 May 2021.
2 See Simon Hattenstone, ‘Old Nick’, The Guardian, 23 February 2008, <>, accessed 27 May 2021.
3 See ‘Nina Simone’s Gum by Warren Ellis’, Nick Cave official website, <>, accessed 27 May 2021.