The latest Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds album, Skeleton Tree, was written in the aftermath of the death of Nick Cave’s son Arthur. Skeleton Tree is an astounding piece of work, a truly heartbreaking and painful listen, claustrophobic, scared, fearful. One More Time With Feeling is the documentary made to go along with the album, or more accurately, do the work of all the endless promo work and interviews of endless repeated questions from mindless hacks from endless hack-rags that purport to write about music. No one should have to repeat themselves in the background of tragedy, and Cave has wisely avoided such drudgery for his own sake.
There is a strange irony to the film. The last time we saw a film about Nick Cave, 20,000 Days on Earth (2014), directed by Ian Forsyth and Jane Pollard, we were not so much taken into Nick Cave’s world as into the world of Nick Cave’s persona; that fine line between the reality and inherent unreality of a persona. For all that we laud honesty and ‘authenticity’ in music, we secretly fall in love with persona, with mystery, with imagination, far more regularly. Johnny Cash cast such a thick spell upon so many for exactly that same reason, the legend of the Man in Black growing bigger than Johnny Cash the man. David Bowie had similar powers. The legend of Robert Johnson the man who sold his soul to the devil grows far stronger than the authenticity of Robert Johnson the black bluesman who toiled the roads and dives of the 1930s US South. It is a cruel twist of faith that one delving into the fictionality of performer should be followed immediately by an album in which said performer is at his most personally anguished and sad.
Nick Cave is too guarded a man to let us see him grieve too openly in One More Time With Feeling. Andrew Dominik is, I feel, not wily enough of a documentarian to truly understand how to approach this material either. He is a fine director, responsible for one of the best Westerns of the new millennium, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), itself with a magnificent soundtrack by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. But here is a rare example of a film somehow working in spite its director, and in spite of some questionable directorial decisions. Structurally, One More Time With Feeling works like this: we see parts of the album’s recording process, interspersed with occasional talking heads (usually Cave, but also his wife Susie and Ellis) musing on various aspects. There’s also a voiceover provided by Cave, commentating on events onscreen as they happen, often injecting humour into proceedings which might otherwise be oppressively gloomy. These are interjected with the songs from the album, each one played in sequence; music videos by another name.
Individually, they are fine music videos, with fluid camera work and some imaginative tracking shots. Yet, the music surely speaks for itself. Dominik frequently uses these overarching, fantastical camera movements to hold our attention, but they are not needed. The music and Nick Cave’s presence is enough. The simpler videos are the best—the stark stillness of ‘Jesus Alone’ is heartrending, but the constant bird’s eye floating of ‘Anthrocene’ is just distracting—and I wonder if this is in part due to the decision to shoot some of the film in 3D, with Dominik feeling he had to justify the inclusion with some unnecessarily showy filming techniques.
Additionally, Dominik’s presence in the interview sections is frustrating as well. Bizarrely, he seems insistent on breaking the fourth wall at times, as if to comment on 20,000 Days on Earth’s complex relationship with its artist and his persona by saying “hey look, I know there’s an element of artificiality to all this too!” Thankfully, this occurs only a handful of times. Dominik’s questions aren’t the most piercing, but his subjects are all interesting and insightful. Nick Cave speaking is always anyone’s time.
One More Time With Feeling is probably not a film for people who aren’t fans of Nick Cave, although people who aren’t fans of Nick Cave aren’t real people either. It’s not perfect. It has significant flaws. But it also contains the music of an artist who is relentlessly creative and who making some of the best music on Earth at the moment, despite the awful personal circumstances he is currently undergoing. There is one extra song included in the film that plays over the end credits. I won’t say what it is, but I will say it constitutes a full-on punch to the gut emotionally, rendering the film’s flaws ultimately rather miniscule.