BBC Culture

20,000 Days on Earth: A new era for music documentaries

Nick Cave

(Madman Entertainment)

The standard rock doc has grown tired and stale. But new films like Nick Cave’s 20,000 Days on Earth are breathing fresh air into the genre, writes Emma Jones.

Laying bare his soul on the psychiatrist’s couch. Chatting to Kylie Minogue in the back seat of his car. Driving through the rain-washed Sussex Downs. 20,000 Days on Earth, a drama-documentary about Australian songwriter Nick Cave, has the same dream-like quality to it as a David Lynch film. Viewers may find it difficult to separate fact from fiction – and this is exactly what the picture’s two British directors are hoping for.

“The film doesn’t comply with the conventions of documentary or drama,” explains Jane Pollard, who met her directing partner Ian Forsyth at art school in the 1990s. “It’s not a factual report of a story or an issue; it’s not a music concert film or a rock-bio. Nick is staging real behaviour in fictional spaces, and this creates something new.”

After winning a directing prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, critics have hailed 20,000 Days as another ‘game-changer’ for the music documentary, a genre that started in 1970 with the release of Woodstock, a grainy concert film about the seminal 1969 festival. A few years later, Led Zeppelin broke new ground with their documentary The Song Remains The Same, which also included behind-the-scenes band footage.

The formula still holds today. In the last two years the industry has produced One Direction’s This Is Us, Katy Perry’s Part of Me and Justin Bieber’s Never Say Never.  They follow a similar pattern: concert songs interspersed with screaming fans, and cut with sometimes deeply personal revelations. It’s a financially successful model – combined, these films took $150m at the box office − that according to Nick Cave now verges on the “self-serving” to the talent involved.

Mr Vain

“I was very hesitant about undertaking my own film,” he says. “I’m suspicious of biographies and celebrity documentaries. But Ian and Jane are artists, and they have an unorthodox approach to this. I invited them to my studios to film some promotional footage for the new record Push The Sky Away. They ended up shooting everything and the footage was so compelling we decided to expand the idea. I gave them access to my songwriting notebooks and it was there they saw the lyric 20,000 Days, as I tried to calculate how many days I’d spend on the planet. We decided to make a fictitious film about my 20,000th day on earth.”

With its smooth cinematography, interviews conducted by a psychoanalyst and occasional soliloquies from Cave, those who aren’t fans might label it a ‘vanity project’, a tag Cave and his filmmaking team so much want to avoid. But Pollard and Forsyth said they were “desperate to do something different.

“We didn’t want it to be reverential, and we didn’t want to unmask him to make him ‘Nick Cave – ordinary 56-year-old singer-songwriter’,” adds Forsyth. “We quickly arrived at this shared understanding with Nick that what none of us like about contemporary music documentaries is their presumed unobtrusive, observational style. That seeing the real Nick Cave will somehow reveal something more about Nick Cave. Watching a rock star wash the dishes or taking the kids to school might be interesting on some level but it doesn’t intellectually engage you and anyway, it’s been done to death.”

Formula done?

The idea that the music documentary formula has been overused is shared by Lars Ulrich, the 50-year-old drummer of one of the most successful groups in the world –thrash metal band Metallica. Their feature film Metallica: Through the Never is about to be released on DVD, after a cinema release at the end of last year.

“There’s no point doing a conventional film any more,” Ulrich claims. “The way social media works today, everyone has access to what’s going on. So the thought of doing a documentary where we go ‘oh, here we are backstage getting massages, here we are warming up, here’s our prayer circle’ – there’s nothing unique about it anymore.”

Through The Never was never a hit, making around $21m at cinemas. Metallica’s guitarist Kirk Hammett blamed its poor performance on “not appealing to casual cinema-goers – just our fans.” But Canadian film critic Jason Gorber, from Twitchfilm.com, thinks there is an audience for more, broad-themed music documentaries aimed at art house moviegoers.

“I think there’s an appetite, even a craving, to delve more deeply into the artistic experience in long form,” he explains. “This generation have shifted musically to downloading singles. We’re past where a modern Woodstock or even a Last Waltz, the original Scorsese band documentary released in 1978, would hold much sway with a sophisticated crowd, but there are plenty of stories to tell.

“I think many of the best new documentaries are children of Standing in the Shadows of Motown. This was a 2003 documentary about Motown that celebrated the music, including performance elements, but at its heart it told a provocative and untold story. Last year films like Muscle Shoals and Oscar-nominee 20 Feet from Stardom very much have followed on this path, as has a severely underrated film – Under African Skies by Joe Berlinger, a deft examination of art and politics surrounding the release of Paul Simon’s Graceland. So the audience is there, and now films have to be more than just jukeboxes.”

Even for music documentaries that unashamedly follow a concert or a celebrity, there often seems to be a gimmick involved – whether it’s Def Leppard playing their album Hysteria back to back for the first time to mark the 25th anniversary of its release, or Germany’s leading rock festival, Wacken, to be filmed in 3D and pithily titledWacken 3D: Louder Than Hell. Both Katy Perry and One Direction have also released their movies in 3D.

One Direction: This Is Us was made by director Morgan Spurlock, a man with a reputation for helping create the ‘reality doc’ a decade ago with SuperSize Me. He argues that not all fly-on-the-wall band films need to be innovative.

“In our case, we are talking about the biggest band in the world – the appetite to see them doing anything is immense. We are also talking about the sensibilities of a mainly teen audience and what they want.”

But even teens may be looking out for something different.  Justin Bieber’s second documentary, Believe, the follow up to Never Say Never, only took $3m in its first few days of opening in December, a tiny percentage of Never Say Never’s gross takings.

Instead, 20,000 Days On Earth director Jane Pollard believes the time is ripe for “music documentaries that are railing against part of our culture that normalises genius and talent – shows like American Idol. There is a strand of culture now that says anyone can do it. That’s not true, and that’s what we wanted to show.”

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