Embracing the Discomfort of the New Nick Cave Documentary
After a lifetime of loving Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds with full ardor, but without sentimentality, it would seem disloyal to both them and my own fanboyish faith to fall apart now. Nick Cave didn’t save my life — I do that myself every damn day, thanks — but he did teach me how to dress, how to sneer, how to push my (now thinning) hair back just so, how to live (if you want to go for that) like a man of sorts, and, for a time, how to talk about death.
Now, the last lesson wasn’t of much use, as Cave’s death fixation was, while not shallow, more concerned with high drama and characters reveling — no matter how achingly — in a certain fate. Black dresses, black shrouds, six-inch blades; a southern gothic libido beast retelling Grimm’s Fairy Tales as sexed-up fever dreams. When the Bad Seeds focused on the next world, it was usually more romantic than existential. Nick Cave doesn’t believe in a God who fixes football matches, but if you wanted to wrestle an angel to get the girl, that could be arranged. Frankly, as far as being an empathetic human person navigating a world where death often lacks drama and pain is usually more financial than biblical, the hair stuff served me better. But lessons are lessons.
And I’m not exaggerating about learning to dress from him. I bought The Good Son when I was 15, from the Berkshire Mall, and hated it for a year because it wasn’t Minor Threat, but here we are. If not for that record, I’d probably be wearing sneakers and shorts on airplanes like a goddamn child. Many of the adults I choose to spend time with learned to excel at both fucking and fucking up from a combination of Nick Cave (and his Bad Seeds) and hard drugs. I like to think that we’re all, to varying degrees, grateful.
I saw the new Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds movie, One More Time With Feeling, twice last night. Being a fool, I initially got tickets thinking that it — while certainly touching on what is referred to for the first hour of the movie only as “everything that’s happened” — was going to largely be a concert film. Sure, the trailer was terrible; Cave’s close-talking used as a generic “In a future where … ” summer blockbuster voice-over to what looked like a particularly vertiginous U2 video. But, being a fan of all Bad Seeds past present and future, I knew it wasn’t going to be terrible. This is a band whose catalog consistency rivals the Rolling Stones. Cool cats the world over have their songs as first songs at their wedding. I’ve lied about having read Cave’s books in bars from coast to coast. If Frank Sinatra never betrayed his own talent for schmaltz and the Rat Pack were expert players with longer beards and more hand jewelry, they’d have been the Bad Seeds. And anyway, it’s not like they were going to use all the good jokes in the preview.
But I did figure the documentary would elide overt sorrow for the hurricane of the live performance, and the screening itself would be me surrounded by all my aging NYC goth pals, swimming in the pathos and fury of grand men in sharp suits. Songs and whatnot. I prepared accordingly and therefore … found myself and my girlfriend passing a soda bottle filled with tequila between us and sobbing together for four hours.
Nick Cave supposedly did the film to head off any and all questions pertaining to the death of his son, Arthur, in the future. That the man responsible for the greatest piece of writing about music writing, “Scum,” thinks that a short documentary will turn vultures into doves is, I don’t know, an optimism of sorts. The Bad Seeds, French cuffs and all, are putting their heads against history with this film. The Cave family and friends are exposed, in the hope that it will somehow be enough in a culture that expects this movie from anyone and everyone, but especially our famous ... or famous enough. I mean, I hope the gamble works. But, knowing full well the number of clicks that the glomming-on of grief results in, I fear it’s just an opening of a floodgate.
The movie — with Andrew Dominik as director and occasionally ham-fisted / often insightful interlocutor-interrogator — largely avoids directly addressing “everything that happened” for the first hour, so I’ll follow its lead. Goddamn, was it a pleasure to watch The Bad Seeds work in 3D. Some fans took issue with its novelty, but I was entirely caught up (though, as the tequila reached its end and the Adderall kicked in, I found manipulating my box of Sweet Tarts a bit of a chore with the glasses on). Watching dust swirl over a piano (and Warren Ellis’ whiskers while working on each song on the new album, Skeleton Tree) made me want to write everyone I’ve ever made fun of on Facebook for referencing “stardust” and apologize. I’m not embarrassed to admit that I have a lot of comparisons to the sparks from a blacksmith’s anvil in the notes on my phone.
Seeing the film twice, I was able to experience both the drier visuals (with better sound) of the back rows and the thrilling looking-up-the-Bad-Seeds’-nostrils of row two. I spent a lot of time wondering how none of these men have dandruff when 20 years of dressing exactly like them has given me a shoulder-sweeping tick even when I sleep. I’m not missing any points here. Hair is an essential part of any Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds analysis. From the live Birthday Party album where you can hear Cave say, “I like your haircut, too” to Kid Congo’s entire earthly existence to “let your hair hang down” on my favorite Bad Seeds song, "The Ship Song," to one of the rare moments of levity in One More Time, when Cave asks how his hair is, jokingly (but clearly meaning it, too), and Ellis responds, “The best it’s ever been. Proceed with confidence.” A man doesn’t name an album in tribute to Elvis’ deceased twin without knowing that a man’s haircut, what the little girls understand, matters.
Spoiler alert: The other funny line is when Jim Sclavunos says, “Fuck continuity.” This line, which will be on my tombstone, resonated later when I tried to figure out the exact order of events in the film. It’s a documentary, but the end credits include a caveat about not taking everything in the film as nonfiction. I don’t know if that was just legalese or something to ponder deeply — Cave’s PR guy still hasn’t written me back — but in a film where Cave ponders the elasticity of time and his sense of awareness, as compared to that of a perhaps indifferent universe, absolute facts don’t seem entirely important. Rather, the core facts are unchangeable, making the peripheral facts — along with perhaps everything else — unimportant.
The narration of the movie alternates smoothly between the banter of those working the record and film, interviews with Nick Cave and his wife, Susie Bick, and the thought process voice-over of Cave himself. Cave recites poetry about Steve McQueen and a solace-providing housefly; muses over his insecurities about losing his own selfhood, whether the prosaic basic tools of voice and iPhone or the larger sense of who he exactly is; and, both to the camera and over it, what the hell he’s doing being involved in the movie at all. The band members, Arthur’s mother and Arthur’s brother, Earl, all thankfully avoid lazy profundity or neat resolution. The heart aches for them all, but they’re good company.
In tune with the clichés of L.A. or NYC being characters in whatever film they appear in, Brighton, with its beaches of black stone and amusement park hovering over wood and water, is a character in One More Time With Feeling. Susie is repeatedly shown on the shore, and the camera at one point gives a tour through the city’s streets, all at ground level, slow-motion marveling at the gulls coming from the ocean. At least until the camera ascends, capturing only the lights below of the city, then the country, then the earth. It could all be so pompous in different hands, but everyone involved — presumably even the viewers, if they care enough to be here for this sort of thing — have long been gone hard for the bigger picture, oversized emotions, myth and the heavenly spheres. Only nerds and squares worry about pretension.
A lot has been said about how raw and open Cave appears to be in the film. I talked to a number of people outside the theater afterwards who were conflicted. All long and hardcore fans (and I’m not naming them; nobody wants to lose their “Friend of a Friend of A Bad Seed” fan club membership card), there were some, especially the ones with small children, who felt strongly that the whole film was too soon, the 3D aspect tacky. They were certain that there was manipulation on the director’s part. This was not the Nick Cave they knew, and he must have been taken advantage of in his loss and being lost.
Cave alludes to this in a late scene where he talks of never having imagined he’d do something like this. The director claims discomfort, too, but, you know, doesn’t turn off the camera either. For myself, I’m torn between not reckoning a family's entirely unknowable grief and admitting that this was not a private phone call Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds made to me — it’s a piece of art. So, we talk about it. We ask, “What would I do? What would I want my father and mother to do?” I’m also entirely comfortable answering, “Fuck if I know.” I think it’s not my or anyone’s place to judge Cave and his wife’s reasoning for making the film. The moral weight on consuming the film is entirely on the viewer and the director. I’ve watched my parents cry. But I didn’t usually bring popcorn.
Conversely, what the 3D aspects most successfully provided, besides some genuinely thrilling camera acrobatics down stairs and through holes in walls, was a sense of intimacy. To be a fan of an artist — a die-hard, not just a consumer — is to, no matter how arguably irrational, feel like one’s life is intertwined with theirs. Of course it’s not, not really, but the Bad Seeds provided both soundtrack and succor to all of us. Many fans felt a genuine grief at Arthur’s death, a grief that caught us off guard and made us — or at least me — regret times we’d rolled our eyes at others commiserating with celebrities they’d never truly know. So, to invite us in, to give even the illusion of proximity, is a generous act. The softening of Cave’s eyes, the easy camaraderie of the band, the wounded parents holding hands under the dining room table after showing a painting Arthur did as a child; all these were valuable to me, regardless of whether it was a value I’d earned. I may hint at times that the film is some sort of ceding to reality show culture, but, at least from a fan’s perspective — setting aside for a moment my dire expectations of the press — it feels less like serialized exploitation and more like a door to Cave’s current world. One that we’re expected to close behind us when we leave.
To patronize the album that the movie in part documents, Skeleton Tree, as merely a portrait of despair is to ignore that sonically / aesthetically, its songs are absolutely in step with the previous Bad Seeds album, Push the Sky Away. With that record, the Bad Seeds left behind the boogie and church choirs of Abattoir Blues / The Lyre of Orpheus, opting for a subtle free associative soundtrack to Cave’s longer poem-songs, songs where he rarely exhorted from the pulpit, rarely raised his voice at all, in fact. (I had assumed that was on account of the return of bassist Barry Adamson, but he’s nowhere to be found on Skeleton Tree.) The band seemed to have been wrestling with mortality before the death of Cave’s son, and despite society’s prevalent leaning towards both superstition and shared empathy, no matter how impossible, in the film Cave rejects both a pat narrative and any put-upon prophecy. I have to respect his own claims to the work. The recording of the album, or at least the overdubs, was of course informed by the trauma of Arthur’s death, but the words were already written. Cave may, by his own admission, be a changed man now, but the band was already swimming in the same river.
Seeing One More Time With Feeling twice in one sitting was, obviously, an idiotic move. Life is difficult enough. We have a presidential candidate who has made us all feel literally insane, rallying murderous forces against the woman I love and all the good people who share her family’s faith. The original sin ugliness of our nation has once again become shrill, as if to mock those who believe in a historical curve towards justice. I’m at the age where, if I don’t wake up and go to bed with constant death terror, it means I’m drunk. The world’s a mess and I’m always late on rent.
So, I probably didn’t need to spend an evening with a family who I may presume to grieve with, but of course really don’t, of course really can’t. It’s just none of my business, and I got my own problems, don’t I? But I did watch One More Time With Feeling twice in one sitting. And I’m glad for it, if “glad” is the word. Even my friends who hated it were, I think, glad to have seen it. We’re fans, after all. We want to “be there” for our guy(s). Our love can’t be any more pointless that anything else, right?
I don’t know how I feel about the movie, outside the pleasures of watching a beloved band perform strong material, and the tension of watching people who — if not detached, exactly — long practiced a certain debauched aristocratic worldview that I value, open their emotional medicine cabinets. I enjoyed the movie twice. I’d see it again, probably. I don’t know what that means either. The movie ends with, depending on how one feels, depending how I feel from moment to moment about it, either a devastating illustration of absence, the hole left by those we lose, or a cheap and effective cinematic trick. It left me and mine unable to choke back tears. I wonder now how the Caves and the Bad Seeds will feel about it a year, five years, 10 years from now.