The title of “20,000 Days on Earth” refers to the rough length of time that rocker Nick Cave has been on this planet — 57 years as of Sept. 22, actually — and, typically, it makes his life sound like an epic haul. Which is a fair description of his music as well: the hellacious post-punk with which Cave and his first band, the Birthday Party, erupted out of Australia into the London scene at the dawn of the 1980s, and the more varied, arguably more powerful rock he has pursued with the Bad Seeds over 15 albums from 1984 on. A hero to anyone who follows alt-culture, forever unrecognized by the mainstream (despite his song “Red Right Hand” popping up in everything from “Scream” to “Cirque du Freak”), Cave’s a protean and intensely charismatic figure — the devil just beneath the surface of rock music.
It figures he’d have a hand in his own documentary, too. “20,000 Days” is directed by the video artists Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard and written by them with Cave; at times it feels more like an installation than a movie. But it’s a relief to find a rock-doc that eschews the usual grainy hand-held wobble for steady camerawork and crisp compositions. The movie looks gorgeous — an artful frame into which Cave can pour his demons.
The conceit, loosely adhered to, is that this is one day in the life, presumably day #20,000. After an opening montage that rampages through the years like a visual “Revolution No. 9,” Cave wakes up in bed next to his wife, Susie, in their current hometown of Brighton, England. The soundtrack is immediately filled with his dark musings on age, time, art, and the Omnipotent. “It’s a world I’m creating,” he says of his creative life, “an absurd, crazy, violent world where people rage away and God actually exists.”
These voice-overs, delivered in Cave’s sepulchral baritone, will continue for the length of the film, borderline pretentious (occasionally over the border), grim and awestruck, often perfectly phrased. With his lank, chin-length hair, he’s like Droopy Dog crossed with one of Jim Jarmusch’s eternal hipsters. The movie practically invites us to laugh when Cave films scenes with his therapist, the British psychoanalyst Darian Leader, yet Cave’s tales of his long-dead father, a cryptic influence, are touching, and you get a sense of the man’s ghosts.
Later in the film, the musician sits down with a team of archivists to look at memorabilia from the various stages of his life, including his childhood — he was a gloomy cuss as early as grammar school. Speaking as someone who’s almost exactly the same age as Cave and who finds one’s late 50s to be a time of sometimes poignant taking stock, I say we should all have our own personal teams of archivists.
Past collaborators and fellow travelers turn up in Cave’s car: actor Ray Winstone fretting about growing old, pop star Kylie Minogue — with whom Cave had his biggest chart hit, the unlikely 1995 duet “Where the Wild Roses Grow” — worrying about being forgotten, German bandmate Blixa Bargeld grousing about balancing music and family. Longtime Bad Seed Warren Ellis, looking like a backwoods prophet, wends through the film as a constant presence. “I’ve had more meals with you than I’ve had with my wife,” he tells Cave.
Around the midway point, “20,000 Days on Earth” starts getting more serious about the music, which is welcome. There are studio snippets of Cave and Ellis working out tunes (one segues unexpectedly into Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long”), a spooky midnight ballad called “Higgs Boson Blues” that conjures an image of “Miley Cyrus floating in a swimming pool in Toluca Lake.” And there’s a roaring climax at the Sydney Opera House, Cave turning the song “Jubilee Street” into a shamanistic exorcism backed by a full string section and a children’s choir.
At such moments, a mystical meeting point heaves into view — the crossroads of Elvis and Bukowski, Neil Young and film noir, the Outback and the American frontier. Maybe “20,000 Days on Earth” is a vanity film. But maybe Cave has earned the right to be vain.