An early scene in the new film One More Time with Feeling finds the songwriter and Bad Seeds bandleader Nick Cave, a lyricist fixated on tales of calamity and redemption, discarding a cornerstone of his career. "I don’t believe in narrative anymore," he says, gazing out a car window. "I just don’t believe that’s what life is like."
If Cave seems adrift and beset by spiritual crisis, it’s due to the tragic death of his 15-year-old son, who fell from a cliff near the family home in Brighton, England last summer. The incident, though hardly referred to explicitly, stalks every moment of the movie. Cave scoffs, in one scene, at empty "platitudes," especially the ones dispensed by acquaintances like Hallmark cards, including himself in this indictment as well. "Everything I’m saying," he says, "is bullshit."
A stirring, gorgeously composed movie about splintering under the weight of grief, One More Time with Feeling depicts Cave at home and in the studio recording the Bad Seeds' 16th album, The Skeleton Tree. The hybrid narrative and documentary film, which premiered in theaters Sept. 8, was directed by Andrew Dominik, who's worked closely with the songwriter before: Cave and key collaborator Warren Ellis composed a soundtrack for Dominik's 2007 western, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.
There’s palpable intimacy — Cave, once a famously combative interviewee, smiles naturally enough to undermine years of dour branding — but there are also references to the cameraman and other such nods to documentary contrivance. The 2014 film 20,000 Days on Earth, which ostensibly chronicled Cave writing and recording the Bad Seeds’ last album, similarly combined documentary tropes and screenwriting, though to significantly more misdirecting effect.
As the camera lingers on Cave staring at a piano, the artist voices over his internal dialog, expressing frustration that the chords to a song seem to have escaped him. After his wife brandishes a childhood painting by their late son of the fateful cliffs, Cave recites a poem with the refrain, There’s more paradise in hell than we’ve been told. That Cave’s fictions sometimes seem prophetic is a potent theme.
One More Time with Feeling is partly a performance film. Black-and-white cinematography renders the studio-cum-venue in vivid tones, lit neither too starkly nor ethereally, and the camera floats about really rather freely. The band plays almost all of The Skeleton Tree, a spare album composed of piano patter, accentual strings, and Ellis’ rippling electronic effects. But with the intensity of little more than a murmuring thrum, it envelops.
It’s telling that at one point in the movie Cave and his band mates mention disagreeing about where exactly the turnaround beat rests in a song. The Skeleton Tree is one of most of amorphous albums in the Bad Seeds’ catalog, unmoored from the ballad structures and plodding grooves that underpin so much of the group’s material.
And Cave actually improvises many passages on the record. He’s less composed than usual. They’re not densely literary songs. At least, not compared to something like Push the Sky Away’s oblique interrogation of faith and science, "Higgs Boson Blues." And yet his wavering intonation of simple, direct phrases such as "Nothing really matters," or "They told us our gods would outlive us / But they lied" resonates instead with its vulnerability.
It’s a departure from the image, cultivated throughout Cave’s career, of the scholar in pop culture exile, the lyrical tactician who reproduces excerpts from his notebook for fans. But his relationship to words, which he once feared and revered, as a moving segment of One More Time with Feeling illustrates, is broken. Writers often turn personal experience into material. "But this kind of trauma," he says, "it was extremely damaging to the creative process."
One More Time with Feeling runs in limited encore screenings at the Roxie Theater in SF from Sept. 9 - 11. Details here.