There’s a great deal of feeling in Andrew Dominik’s documentary on Nick Cave, One More Time With Feeling. The film is quite a revelation; at a surface level dealing with the recording of the latest Bad Seeds’ album, Skeleton Tree, it is actually about so much more. While there are some fascinating insights into creativity and the recording process, this is foremost a study in human grief, as we glimpse Cave and his family trying to cope in the aftermath of the death of 15 year old son, Arthur.
An intensely private and enigmatic figure, it comes as quite a surprise that Cave would allow the cameras to intrude like this. The charismatic performer is strikingly vulnerable at times; we know how self assured he looks on a stage but here we see very human moments of self doubt: worrying that his voice might be failing at one point, relying on collaborator Warren Ellis to resolve a bout of indecision over a song. So why would Cave agree to be stripped bare like this? He addresses the point towards the end of the film: trauma, he reasons, turns you into a completely different person, and prior to this tragedy he could not have imagined doing something like this. It’s as though the film is a kind of therapy, Cave is understandably incapable of reaching any resolution over the death of his boy. Perhaps the process of the documentary brings him a step closer. It also helps that Dominik is a longtime friend and collaborator, there’s certainly a high level of trust going on that makes the project work where it might have otherwise failed.
Shot in stunning black and white with a fractured voice-over from Cave, One More Time With Feeling is an unapologetically self-conscious film: we are constantly made aware of the cameras and the participants often mention the documentary itself. So while there is a fair amount of technical trickery going on, we never feel like any of it is mere artifice.
On the music side of things, very much the focus in the first half of the film, we witness the importance of Warren Ellis to Cave’s creative output. At one point Cave reflects: “What would I do without Warren?” You get the feeling that without Ellis’ calming presence, Cave would have taken much longer for his creative output to emerge from this tragedy. The music from Skeleton Tree is suitably somber and searching, and has far more in common with Ellis’ work in the Dirty Three or the pair’s film soundtrack material than the murder ballads for which Cave was once renowned. With fragmentary lyrics and a general reluctance for conventional song structures, I suspect the new album will take some time to digest. But Cave has never been one to shy away from challenging his audience, and it’s rare (and stimulating) that popular music can genuinely be called art.
The second half of the film becomes much more personal, following the introduction of Cave’s wife, Susie, and son, Earl. The inclusion of Susie, in particular, makes this a very human story about a family’s grief, while Cave’s reflections as he struggles to come to terms with things are poignant and deeply philosophical.
This a compelling tale that engages far beyond the music and deserves to be seen whether or not you are fan of Nick Cave.
Reviewed by Matthew Trainor
Pictures supplied, feature credit Kerry Brown