Sydney Film Festival Review: 20,000 Days on Earth (UK, 2014)

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Viewers are gifted a film which is undeniably Nick Cave with (sort-of) rock bio-pic 20,000 Days on Earth ditching everything we have come to dread of rockstar-centric films and giving us something which truly seeks the mind of this infinitely interesting artist. Filmmakers Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard employ various techniques to twirl around an unstructured narrative that looks closer at a day in the life of Nick Cave.

Smartly chosen as the film to open the 61st Sydney Film Festival, 20,000 Days on Earth plays much like a dreamscape with Nick fluttering in and out of reality, conjuring up past figures in his life and striking conversations with them; conversations which focus on peeling the layers away of Nick Cave and diving deep into his perspective. We are given access into everything from his psyche while performing, to his realistic reflection of his famous collaboration with pop-princess Kylie Minogue; all explorations of Nick Cave which are seasoned with a blunt, self-deprecating sense of humour and a warmth which one doesn’t usually get from rock biographies.

Many biographical films seek to provide insight into the artist concerned, but always seem to end up maintaining that air of superiority which often shrouds our idols. 20,000 Days on Earth really humanises Nick Cave in a way few films have done before, using various narrative techniques such as Nick visiting a therapist or his fellow musician Warren Ellis, and reflecting on the vulnerabilities which we, as fans, never get to see. The free-flowing conversations he has with these people – including imagined ones with Ray Winstone and Kylie Minogue (who provides insights into her own thoughts) – exposes Nick Cave’s fears, his past, his creative process, and his ever-present pursuit of the surreal.

His fascination with blurring the lines between reality and imagination is a strong current throughout this film, with Nick outlining what he thinks is the primary part of songwriting – counterpoint – as the flow of narrative that is welded out of two initially incompatible concepts. The power of imagination at sparking unexpected symbiotic relationships seems to fuel much of the classic Nick Cave stories we have come to know and adore throughout the past 40-plus years, and that’s all confirmed here as he eloquently describes his artist pursuits. We finally see much of what is behind one of the greatest portfolios in Australian rock history and that in itself is reason enough that 20,000 Days on Earth is essential viewing, and not just for hardcore Nick Cave fans.

The beauty of this film extends well beyond the final shot of Cave staring out into the water at Melbourne’s Brighton Beach; each subsequent time we see him live we will be seeing this man in a different light, painting him with our newly acquired knowledge of just where he goes when he closes his eyes on stage, what he feels when the music seemingly doubles him over before us, and who he is staring at when he looks out at a sea of fans (or just the front row).

It’s not hard to see why Nick Cave gravitated towards Forsyth and Pollard, allowing them to bring his mind to the big screen. While the style of shooting is inconsistent and often dizzying, the art-driven aesthetic that cuts through many of the film’s sequences is unique and truly in-line with what we have come to expect of Nick Cave. The whole theme seems to be surrealism, and that’s exactly what they achieve here in arguably the film’s best sequence which shows real-life footage of Cave performing “Jubilee Street” at Sydney Opera House last year. While performing, there are flashes of older live footage, a cacophony of Nick Cave imagery which has him thrown into multi-coloured glory; he turns his head to his right and you get a flash of Cave in his youth; he turns his head left and his entire journey flashes before your eyes – the entire sequence is an exhilarating rush of how far this man has come and how indelible he is to music.

The final shot of Nick Cave looking out over the water is a snapshot of the man in everyday life; as the camera draws out further, the entire scene blurs into a dream-like image, getting further and further away from the real Nick Cave and blurring our sense of him. Again, this captures the surreal current of the film and Nick’s work, quite nicely reiterating our new-found knowledge and engagement with this incredible artist.


20,000 Days on Earth screened as the opening film at Sydney Film Festival 2014. An encore screening is scheduled for Sunday 8 Jan. Tickets


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Chris Singh

Chris Singh is an Editor-At-Large at the AU review, loves writing about travel and hospitality, and is partial to a perfectly textured octopus. You can reach him on Instagram: @chrisdsingh.