“I took the government’s advice to… f—k what do you call it? Retrain!” Nick Cave begins in the opening stanza of This Much I Know to be True. He utters it in the manner of a man who has no option but to follow the whims of his bolting creative muse. In the process, he subconsciously ridicules ‘retraining’ as a foreign word. “I’ve retrained as a ceramicist because it’s no longer viable to be a musician, a touring artist.” Beyond the wryness and the display of the sheer breadth of his creative output, this apt statement for the times is a mark of the sagacity behind everything that Cave cares to share with us.
He was once the chief hellraiser of pariah rockers The Birthday Party with a howl that could perturb werewolves, and fantastic hair that a borrower could surf upon, now he occupies the role of a poetic preacher of spiritual solemnity with the same unfettered air. It might be a guise that unfortunate fate has shepherded him towards, but it is one that he vitally fulfils with saintly grace for all our sakes.
One of the mediums beyond the music by which this has manifested for many fans is The Red Hand Files, Cave’s online question-answer forum. For some, it is merely a gift to your inbox every week as a fresh piece of wisdom and wit lands your way, but for those asking questions it is an outlet—this is the notion that delineates what Nick Cave has become as a musician. When you’re in dire need of advice, airing grievances or venting grief, you don’t usually turn to a jelly-haired rock ‘n’ roll star.
However, Cave has transcended that lofty perch, but not in the typical idolised way of awe-inspiringly rising above us like some virtuoso reaching the rafters with a solo in a concert. Rather he has shunned that sense of stardom to be among his fans, and connect with them through empathy. This is what the modern rock star can be, and beyond the soaring musical moments in the film, the humble segment when he describes the agony aunt process is one of the most stirring in the entire film.
And it is also the moment that makes it so hard to review as a piece of work, or rather, makes reviewing it seem redundant. As fans, we will all have our own personal corroborations from the film that stretch way beyond the content itself. This is because the art that Cave has offered has become such a transcendent force that it is almost a cornerstone of our lives. Amid the chaotic movie, there is so much meaning that this seems to be the point of its shuffled synopsis—you find your own story within it. This is what Cave near enough remarks upon in a meta sense when he says that there is always meaning in people—that meaning is imperishable.
Cave finds much of this meaning in his friend Warren Ellis. For Cave and Ellis, these exultant moments are trapped in the amber of their collaboration. As they say, when discussing their working process, there are “transcendent moments […] but they are just snippets in an ocean of bullshit.” The film offers you flitting glimpses of the ocean, but fortunately never so much that you’re wading through bullshit, thus, you can bask in the beauteous rhapsody of their stunningly shot performances (that is unless you hate strobing).
These songs are interspersed with snippets of chat with both Cave and Ellis. There are moments of levity, profundity and re-balancing asides throughout. There are also moments of naturalistic subtlety that prove just as revealing as the grand segments in between—little barely noticeable moments like Ellis helping Marianne Faithfull into her chair. These all come together in stunning style, but really, it is what you take away from it on a personal level that adds the weight to this humble project.
Ostensibly, the premise reads: “Shot on location in London & Brighton, Andrew Dominik’s new feature doc captures Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ exceptional creative relationship as they bring to life the songs from their last two studio albums, Ghosteen (Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds) and Carnage (Nick Cave & Warren Ellis).” But ultimately that is just the surface side of things, beneath the welter is a wealth of human experience.
The film is set to premiere with an extended global release this evening. You can find out further details on nickcave.com.