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Mourning and music making collide in ‘This Much I Know to Be True’

The latest collaboration between director Andrew Dominik and musicians Nick Cave and Warren Ellis probes the creative process behind two albums, ‘Ghosteen’ and ‘Carnage,’ and the idea of art as a restorative process

Nick Cave in "This Much I Know to Be True."Courtesy of MUBI

In “This Much I Know to Be True,” as in their previous collaboration, “One More Time With Feeling” (2016), director Andrew Dominik and musicians Nick Cave and Warren Ellis have expanded the form of the musical documentary into an experience that is more intimate, subjective, and “transcendent” (as Cave puts it in this film) than a recording or concert. A tragedy accounts for much of the power of the two films — the accidental death in 2015 of Cave’s teenage son, Arthur. And adding to the litany of heartbreak, Cave’s son Jethro Lazenby died last month at 31 after the film was finished. The music, sweep, and images of these two sui generis documentaries draw you into the black void of loss and the catharsis of grief — but also into the restorative process of art.

“One More Time With Feeling” centered on the recording of the album “Skeleton Tree” (2016), which was ongoing at the time of Arthur’s death. “This Much I Know to Be True” likewise focuses on the creative process behind the music, in this case for the two subsequent albums. They are “Ghosteen” (2019) by Cave and his band the Bad Seeds with Ellis as co-producer; and “Carnage” (2021), the first by Cave and Ellis together as a duo, here performed for the first time in a vacant, chapel-like space in London’s Battersea Arts Centre and other locations.

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Unlike the stark black-and-white of the last film, the new one draws on a subtle, viridian-tinged palette, suggesting that the mood has improved from abysmal to serene and melancholy. The performances of the songs are limpidly choreographed with the camera circling and weaving about in time to the incantatory music, capturing the glowering, anguished Cave, the antic, Gandalf-like Ellis, and the seraphic supporting singers and musicians. Spotlights and strobes pulse along with the crescendos, drones, and whale-like moans of the keyboards, strings, and vocalists. The effect is at once immersive and detached, intimate and oceanic, casting a seductive spell elevating Cave’s cryptic lyrics into a visionary fusion of the personal, pop cultural, and archetypal.

A still from "This Much I Know to Be True."Courtesy of MUBI

Quieter segments punctuate these performances, including the appearance of Marianne Faithfull, alarmingly infirm in a wheelchair after a bout with COVID-19, who gamely jokes with Ellis and Dominik before she removes the oxygen tube she’s hooked up to and recites May Sarton’s poem “Prayer Before Work.” (She is recording her own album with Ellis.) Or Cave discussing his blog The Red Hand Files, a kind of hip advice column in which he answers readers’ philosophical queries and advises them about their existential crises with a wisdom and empathy that surprises even himself. He says the correspondence probably brings him as much solace and insight as it does to those who write to him.

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Also illuminating is an introductory segment in which Cave, apparently tongue in cheek, announces that because it was “no longer viable to be a musician, a touring artist” (given the straitened circumstances of the pandemic, presumably), he “took the government’s advice” to “retrain as a ceramicist.” He points to his first effort, a failed statuette of a saint boiled in oil, before presenting his current work in progress, a series of 18 figurines depicting the life of the devil. They are surprisingly accomplished, especially the final installment, in which the devil — near death and skeletal — is consoled by a child.

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“It is called ‘The Devil Forgiven,’” says Cave, with arch significance. His raw-boned features, raven black hair, and prominent eyebrows indeed look diabolical, and his creative powers, which range from the transgressive to the tragic, from ecstasy to redemption, can seem at times drawn from infernal depths.

“This Much I Know to Be True” can be streamed on MUBI beginning July 8. “One More Time With Feeling” will also be available on MUBI beginning Aug. 6.

Go to mubi.com/films/this-much-i-know-to-be-true.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com