20,000 Days on Earth & Mistaken for Strangers
There are three constants in documentaries about rock musicians. One: an act may present itself to the camera as being highly serious and level-headed, but it only takes one tiny lapse into on-the-road idiocy and that film will inevitably get compared to Spinal Tap. Two: no matter what happens on stage, however spectacular or inspired, what really counts as image-defining performance in such films takes place behind the scenes, which means that an artist’s real skill at projecting a memorable persona will be required when taking hotel elevators or falling asleep on tour buses. Three: we’ve become so over-exposed to musicians who are “real characters,” larger-than-life “forces of nature,” that the only way a performer can hope to look interesting is to project an air of absolute mundanity and domesticity.
20,000 Days on Earth
These rules apply in varying degrees to two new music documentaries. I almost said “music documentaries with a difference,” but then they all aspire to be “with a difference,” more or less. These two really are somewhat singular, though—one because it doesn’t quite resemble anything else in the genre, the other because it purports not to be a film about a band so much as a recreational project by a person who happens to be related to someone in a band.
The first is 20,000 Days on Earth by British artists Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard, which closes this year’s New Directors/New Films at Lincoln Center on March 30. It’s a portrait of Nick Cave, rather than a conventional documentary about him—and certainly not a history of his career. What historical documentation there is, is largely rushed out with flamboyant profligacy in an opening sequence that blitzes through an abundance of Cave imagery on multiple screens at breakneck speed. Want footage of Cave’s early Australian bands The Boys Next Door and the Birthday Party? Of him dueting with Kylie Minogue, or playing a crazed convict in Ghosts… of the Civil Dead (88)? It’s probably all there in this sequence, but don’t blink too much.
Forsyth and Pollard take an unorthodox approach to biography. Their film imagines a representative day, theoretically the 20,000th, in the life of 56-year-old Cave. We see him wake up at home in Brighton, England, and proceed to do what he does every day: as he puts it, “I wake, I write, I eat, I write, I watch TV.” But that’s not all he does. He also drives around Brighton accompanied by various past collaborators—Kylie Minogue, Ray Winstone (who acted in the 2005 Cave-scripted film The Proposition) and former Bad Seeds guitarist Blixa Bargeld. He also visits current band member Warren Ellis to swap reminiscences about those sacred monsters of live performance Nina Simone and Jerry Lee Lewis, who could scare their audiences and their musicians in equal proportion. He pays a visit to his archive and sifts through moments of his history, explaining the background to assorted photos, like the one of an audience member caught pissing on the Birthday Party’s bassist, the late Tracy Pew.
20,000 Days on Earth
There are various inserts into this dream day: Cave writing and recording songs for his recent Push the Sky Away album, plus some live performance, all the more thrilling because so sparely used. But the most exciting thing, for Cave aficionados and newcomers alike, is a long interview with psychoanalyst Darian Leader, who asks a few pointed questions but for the most part nods sagely and mutely—at the very least, establishing the conventions of an analytic encounter, which allows Cave to talk revealingly about his past. We learn from this session that a man long known as rock’s great cosmopolitan wanderer (sojourns in Brazil, Berlin, Brighton) had a fairly normal-sounding Australian boyhood, with memories of a bridge which local kids used to dive off. Then there were the girls that dressed the boy Nick in female clothes, and a bookish dad who introduced his son to the joys of literature, beginning with Lolita. Cave also discusses the craft of songwriting, with relaxed wit. It’s about counterpoint, he says, about finding elements that spark off each other—“like letting a child into the same room as a Mongolian psychopath.”
Cave admits that it’s part of his profession as a songwriter to “cannibalize” his marriage. He also, touchingly, talks about the explosion of desire that took place when he first laid eyes on his wife Susie Bick—prompting another frenzied montage, of screen and other cultural goddesses. Bick herself is glimpsed in a single photo, but otherwise declines to appear except as a silhouette surveying her spouse from an upstairs window (there’s nothing like maintaining a little mystery in marriage). Shot in atmospheric, grainy ’Scope by Erik Wilson, this elegant study looks less like a documentary than like a highly staged thriller, a piece of brooding provincial noir: driving along a rainy coastline, Cave resembles a hit man off to dispatch some victim on the outskirts of suburban Hove
If 20,000 Days is an exception to the Spinal Tap rule, it’s not because Cave takes himself seriously, but because his dry, acerbic sensibility rises above the routine follies of the pop world. Yes, he has always impressed on stage and on record as the ultimate dark-side rock star, but that’s because he has approached that role from a distance, evidently a man of words first and foremost. We know Cave the haunted soul behind the microphone, but here’s the droll penseur behind the manual typewriter. And he does, as he says, watch TV too: at the end we see him with his twin sons, both in school uniforms, all eating pizza on the sofa. Normality is the strangest touch of all.
Mistaken for Strangers
But what could be more normal for a rock musician than to have a sibling who’s considerably less stylish and less at ease with the world? Matt Berninger is the singer of The National, and the only member in a band otherwise composed of siblings to leave his brother at home. The premise of Mistaken for Strangers (named after a song on the band’s 2007 Boxer album) is that Berninger invites his younger brother Tom on tour to work as a roadie. Tom—an aspiring filmmaker with several zero-budget horror flicks to his name, apparently—decides to make a documentary about his time on the road.
Tom and The National are not an obvious fit. The group are sober, diffident, committed to a poetic, rather earnest style of songcraft, whereas Tom, says Matt, “is more of a metalhead.” Whatever Tom’s talents, being a roadie is not one of them. He’s more interested in living the Tap dream, and in having “a hard alcohol night” with the band—but drummer Bryan Devendorf (imagine a glum, bearded Nicolas Cage after just such a night) is the only member interested in letting his hair down. Tom manages at various points to miss the tour bus and to lose a guest list, leaving Matt’s parents-in-law stuck outside a venue along with Werner Herzog. And no one’s too happy with him filming everything.
He’s apparently not much good at the documentary thing, either. The film begins with his apparently impromptu attempt to interview his brother. “Do you ever get sleepy on stage? Do you get nightmares? Don’t act like it’s a dumb question.” Matt rolls his eyes: “Do you have a notebook? Do you have any plans for this film?”
Mistaken for Strangers
Whether or not it’s part of Tom’s plans, Mistaken for Strangers soon becomes a teasing essay on sibling tensions, as illustrated by the ultimate indignity: Matt in concert, stalking through the audience as he sings, while Tom trails him to make sure his mike lead doesn’t get caught. The Berningers’ parents appear, an affable middle-class Cincinnati couple, mother Nancy obligingly reassuring Tom: “You were my most talented” (and maybe he was: his cartoons look rather accomplished).
Whatever the history of this droll exercise, and whatever Tom Berninger’s original reasons for undertaking it, Mistaken for Strangers is not altogether what it purports to be—the giveaway being the producer credits for Matt and his wife Carin Besser. After years of being wholly or partly bamboozled by documentaries that aren’t 100 percent bona fide, it may no longer be of much critical value to use terms like “mock doc”—but it’s clear that at the very least, Mistaken for Strangers turned at some point in its making into a very playful masquerade. Only someone very smart and confident would be willing to portray himself as quite so hapless and gauche as Tom does here; he essentially uses the tour as a backdrop for a gonzo self-portrait, a likeably self-deprecating music-biz counterpart to Louis C.K.’s TV shows.
As for The National, you get bits of their music here and there, and the band emerge sympathetically as straight men to Tom’s idiot routine. What’s in the documentary for them? They have one of the most nebulous public images of any successful rock act, and there is no easy way of making this hard-working but self-effacing crew seem terribly interesting as people; Matt’s well-cut three-piece suit doesn’t make him a debonair Doctor Death like Nick Cave, but rather leaves him resembling the senior accountant of an embalming supplies firm. So the most feasible way for this band to look interesting is to be sympathetically dull. The most interesting thing I now know about Matt Berninger is that his home life is quietly suburban (a backyard dominated by his young daughter’s playthings), and that nothing annoys him more than finding cereal spilled on his hotel bathroom floor. I like him all the more for it—but it’s nowhere near as interesting as his brother’s choice of humiliation as an art form, or a career option.