Director: Andrew Dominik
Arthur Cave died on July 14th 2015. He fell to his death from the Brighton cliffs after taking LSD. He was fifteen years old. These gut-wrenching facts are all over Andrew Dominik’s artful documentary One More Time With Feeling but it takes a long time for them to be addressed head-on. Even then the words don’t surface directly. They’re too brutal. Nick Cave sits in front of the camera like a man irked. He describes trauma as being like an elastic band; you can pull yourself so far away from it, but it’s always there to snap you back.
The man presented here bares little resemblance to the one seen just a couple of short years ago in 20,000 Days On Earth, which functioned as a playful lionising of the Nick Cave of legend. It feels conspicuously frivolous now when set beside the haunting monochrome of Dominik’s film, in which Cave seems hollowed out. The film offers us renditions of songs from his new album with the Bad Seeds, Skeleton Tree, but it also presents a portrait of a man in love with words, frustrated at their inadequacy when trying to define emotions that are in a constant state of flux.
His songwriting style for the new record has changed notably. Where once he would pour over his lyrics seeking perfection, this new collection border on stream-of-consciousness. Having found articulating his grief too monumental, Cave has instead attempted to capture their truth in a state of almost lucid dreaming.
The showman we’ve met before is there at the top of the picture still. Cave drops in like he’s recording the film’s commentary track, wryly deriding both himself and the stop-start slapdash nature of Dominik and his crew getting to grips with the cumbersome 3D camera that’s capturing his every minute. And to begin with One More Time With Feeling even apes the meta-leanings of its predecessor; openly acknowledging moments that are staged for the purposes of the film.
But as things progress the facade cracks, as does Cave’s. Songs are performed in their entirety, and while Arthur isn’t directly named in their verses, the impact of his passing is present always. It’s as though he’s just out of frame. As the minutes pass by his presence presses on the film with greater urgency, and you can feel Cave reacting against it, unsure where it might take both the film and himself. He talks about himself in the third person, about being both humbled and mystified by the pity of strangers. About how alien and uncomfortable it feels to be the subject of pity.
It takes the arrival in the film of his wife Susie for the levy to finally break. But there’s no tearful crescendo. More an increasing level of openness. As though the Caves resign themselves to talking about what has befallen them. It’s an event too seismic to skirt forever. One of the most affecting scenes comes early in the second half when husband and wife present for the camera a painting of Arthur’s from many years ago depicting the future location of his death. Nick grows uncomfortable and hides the framed artwork behind a chair. He takes his wife’s hand. They sit imprisoned in the camera.
Dominik films his subject with a mix of both awe and sensitivity. The sombre nature of the film is self-evident, but it doesn’t go as far as to feel manipulative, yet it is heavy with the weight of grief. The songs are highlights, one and all, roughly half of which are filmed on a circular track with Cave and his piano in the centre. Lights flicker in the peripheries, and it recalls the final scene of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me in which Agent Cooper and Laura Palmer are witness to an angel in the black lodge. Dominik’s presentation enhances the sense that Cave is singing from some supernatural room that’s adjacent to death. Separate from, but intrinsically connected.
Good as the songs are (and “Jesus Alone” particularly sounds incredible), it is the life outside of the studio that makes One More Time With Feeling crackle. Dominik interviews Susie about her fashion work and how she has used it as a distraction. Cave, on the other hand, reveals that Arthur’s death almost destroyed his ability to write. Distraction proved impossible, it seems. The fact of the trauma eclipsing his ability to reflect it.
The use of the 3D camera is interesting as is Dominik’s evident unfamiliarity with it. Rough early scenes literally struggle to find focus. On reflection the use of these takes seems knowingly coordinated considering how close to the bone the film finally becomes. Elsewhere, Dominik uses the documentary to experiment with the medium to varying degrees of success. Some of the time it recalls David Fincher’s roving camera in Panic Room. An exploration of the studio space features a beautiful swoop down a spiral staircase. Later, however, an attempt at something extremely grand fails to match the emotional resonance at the heart of the picture. Pulling out to show the Earth in its entirety has far less gravity than a simple, stark shot of Cave sat in a featureless room wrangling with himself over what to say.
It’s a wrought piece of work, but an incredibly moving one. And it’s probably worth noting that it is not without humour. A sequence in which Susie and young Earl Cave get lost in the labyrinthine corridors of the studio openly recalls This Is: Spinal Tap, while Warren Ellis unwittingly plays the part of the greatest friend a man could have. An aside in which he flatters Cave on his hair is part jest, part lifeline to the struggling singer/songwriter/author. It is in moments like this, one senses, that Ellis keeps Cave from descending altogether. It’s his way of saying, “Keep going, mate. I’m here.”
The ‘one night only’ gimmick release of the film in cinemas ultimately feels considered also. A longtime fan of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, I attended one of many, many sold-out screenings that took place on the night of 8th September 2016 across the globe. One wonders whether Dominik considered the alternative of a conventional cinematic run. How many audience members would have been in attendance then? One suspects less overall, as the ease of availability can also invite complacency. Fortunately, the film more than justified the limited release and the over-the-odds admission fee (nearly double the price of a regular cinema visit), and will be remembered by those that attended not just for its quality, but for the hushed sense of communal empathy and reflection which felt uncommonly pregnant in the room when the lights came up.