Image by Kerry Brown
I can’t imagine anybody going to see this movie without a sense of foreboding – dread, even – given its central motif: the death of Nick Cave’s teenage son Arthur in a terrible accident last year, partway through the recording of the album Skeleton Tree, and the way that Cave and his family dealt with their grief. There was surely also a worry that this had the potential to be a rare misstep in what has largely been a critically bomb-proof career: that making a commercial movie about private grief to essentially serve as a marketing opportunity for a pop album isn’t really acceptable in some way.
But of course, any fears are misplaced. One More Time With Feeling is entirely in step with the way Cave works, sharing some elements with its predecessor 20,000 Days On Earth: using both a paradoxically self-deprecating hubris and a form of staged reality (where Warren Ellis doesn’t really cook eels in a Dover farmhouse and Cave’s wife Susie doesn’t really emerge from the bathroom adjusting her dress in a candid fashion). Every shot is planned, every slice of reality mediated, the fly on the wall carefully choreographed. But as with the previous film, these artifices provide an environment for Cave to express things that couldn’t be more real.
The structure of the film is curious: largely shot in the studio (where the band seem to pretend to record the album, providing a series of beautifully shot performances which will serve as music videos) and in cabs, and then later in Cave’s Brighton home, it starts with Warren Ellis refusing to discuss Cave’s private life, and then Cave criticising director Andrew Dominik for not knowing how to operate the unwieldy 3D camera (more on that later) whilst reshooting what’s supposed to be a ‘real’ moment. That combination of evasion and of dismantling the faux-documentary format persists for much of the film. Cave talks with his usual clarity and wisdom about the nature of time and accidents, about the rejection of narratives and the endlessly rehearsed lie that personal strife provides fuel for the artist, and it could be business as usual in the studio were it not for the way his face falls between sparring with Ellis or Sclavunos, his mask slipping and the pain all too vivid. But there are moments even early on – in Ellis’ clear concern for his friend, and then the way in which Arthur’s brother Earl tenderly strokes his mother’s hair on a studio visit – that are like a kick in the gut.
It takes an interview with Susie, talking of her depression and the need for a creative outlet (in her case, ‘sexualising’ conservative dress designs), for the film to really engage with ‘what happened’, and then the film becomes ever more painful and awkward and moving. You see Cave, one of the most articulate writers of his generation, rendered inarticulate with grief, grappling with his failure to find meaning in trauma, with the fenced off but inescapable fact of his son’s awful death. Being Cave, even his inarticulacy is potent but it’s rare – fortunately so – to see somebody you don’t know in quite this state. There’s a moment when Cave explains that ‘while this happened to us, it happened to him (Arthur) too’, and it’s almost too painful to see his face.
And through it all, ‘the work’, a series of songs as brooding and powerful as anything the band have ever done, but with everything freighted with extra significance now. It’s not clear how many of these songs were written before the death and it might be that something as heartbreaking as I Need You would have been a simple song of lost love if it weren’t for this new context. Indeed, I Need You is the point where any number of people, this reviewer included, really lost their shit, a plaintive melody and some of the most direct and unadorned lyrics of his career really driving home the anguish, that anguish reflected not just on Cave’s face but on the faces of his band. And of course finishing the movie with a song sung by Arthur, Earl and Nick to accompany shots of the cliffs where Arthur presumably fell was a harrowing emotional payoff, something that might have seen almost mawkish in other circumstances.
It seems churlish to criticise a project like this, but shooting the movie in 3D and doing it so poorly was remarkably foolish (as is Cave’s management’s insistence that this is the ‘correct’ version, the version critics should see). There are a handful of visually stunning moments where the gimmick pays off, but not enough to justify the often muddy visuals, and there are a number of utterly pointless shots where Dominik seems to want to simply show off his toy. Shooting the movie in stark, crisp, black and white would have sufficed. On the plus side, the sound design is as good as I’ve ever heard – the viewer moves from control room conversation to studio chatter to black cab interview utterly seamlessly, music and voiceover and diagetic sound mixed to perfection.
Once More Time With Feeling is as heartbreaking as you’d expect but entirely worthy of your time, even if you’re not a Cave fan, and the fact that what is ultimately the aforementioned ‘marketing opportunity for a pop album’ can serve as one of the most compelling studies of grief I’ve ever seen is further testament to how essential and unique Nick Cave is.