Review: One More Time With Feeling
“All of our days are numbered. We cannot afford to be idle. To act on a bad idea is better than to not act at all because the worth of the idea never becomes apparent until you do it.” –Nick Cave, 20,000 Days on Earth (2014).
“I don’t know why the fuck I’m doing this.” –Nick Cave, One More Time with Feeling (2016).
When I saw the news in late 2015 that Nick Cave's teenage son Arthur had been killed in an accident, my second thought, after sadness and sympathy for the Cave family, was that the next Bad Seeds album was going to be a hell of a thing. It felt like a sick and shameful thought, but really, it’s a natural one. My only relationship to Nick Cave is with what his work means to me, so any thoughts I have about his personal life can only be filtered through his music. Out of this tragedy comes One More Time with Feeling, a film that confronts the dichotomy between being an artist and being a human. How can you mourn privately when your job is to sell your emotions?
This is the second documentary about Cave’s personal life, only two years after Jane Pollard and Iain Forsyth’s 20,000 Days on Earth, and in many ways, it feels like the somber second chapter of a trilogy. 20,000 Days used winkingly-staged interviews and metaphorical encounters to illustrate the ways in which we become the myths we invent for ourselves. One More Time is exactly the sequel you would script if it weren’t the truth, a study in what happens when something catastrophic crashes through your reality and demolishes your understanding of your own life.
On its surface, the film is about the recording of the new Bad Seeds album, Skeleton Tree. Cave commissioned Andrew Dominik, for whom he had scored The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, to capture the process in an effort to avoid discussing his own mindset upon the disc's release. It was Dominik's idea to shoot in black-and-white 3D, which reportedly confused Cave until he saw the results.
The visuals are indeed stunning; the stereoscopic monochrome bringing stark attention to the mundane clutter of a recording studio, giving ethereal life to shots of Cave standing around looking like he doesn’t know how he got there. This style pairs perfectly with the album, which lays gentle orchestrations as beds for matter-of-fact lyrics like “the urge to kill someone was basically overwhelming.” But Dominik's real masterstroke is in the way he and his crew forgo any attempt to remain invisible. Assistants and camera operators are constantly crossing the frame, running cables and laying tracks. A cameraman trips, and we hit the floor with him. All the while, Cave cracks sardonic about the absurdity of the convoluted 3D setups. What this vérité approach does is heighten the reality by shifting our focus—this isn’t just the story of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds recording an album, it’s the story of a documentary crew filming Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds recording an album. Because of this, even the stagiest moments, like the stripped-down music videos that present Skeleton Tree's songs, feel as true and significant as anything else, because the process of staging them is part of the narrative.
What elevates One More Time with Feeling beyond being just a lovely band documentary is the way in which it deals with Arthur Cave's death. For anyone aware of the news going into the film, it hangs over the first half like a specter, a grim elephant in the room. Cave is visibly distracted, cursing himself in sparse, iPhone-recorded confessionals, made into narration, being unable to remember his own lyrics. He talks about his discomfort with the condolences of strangers, of feeling like a charity case. He looks humbled, uncertain, frail. It’s a disturbing sight for anyone who knows this man as the strutting, limb-flailing rock icon who’s just as likely to sing about summoning demons as making love.
But the film is half over before anyone really talks about what happened. It isn’t revealed as a shocking twist or a dramatic moment. Arthur comes up in a quiet conversation between Cave and his wife, Susie, and their grief is discussed as an unchangeable part of their lives. One More Time with Feeling portrays the loss of a loved one in a way maybe more real than any film I’ve seen, documentary or fiction. Loss doesn’t cause our lives to stop. We go back to work. We rely on those we still have with us, and we keep on finding beauty where we can. As Susie Cave says, we “make the choice to be happy.” But those we have lost hover over everything we do as a memory, inevitably coming up in conversation, always one step away from the present.
One More Time with Feeling premiered in September as a special “One Night Only” screening, its release method part of its intimacy. However, it’s getting a limited second theatrical run in December by popular demand. Any fan of Cave should see it, though anyone with a low tolerance for his self-confessed pretentiousness will likely not be converted by watching him wallow. It’s not exactly an enjoyable film, but it is a beautiful, cathartic experience. There’s a feeling of weight being lifted as it draws to a close, summed up in the performance of “Distant Sky”, in which Cave's lyrics capture the serenity of the moment in which one accepts the end of an era and moves on. The screen fills with color as Cave sings the words that capture the film and maybe the entire year of 2016: “They told us our dreams would outlive us, they told us our gods would outlive us, but they lied.”