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The sublime dance of the Andrew Dominik-Nick Cave films

Andrew Dominik's two documentaries with musician Nick Cave are stunning examples of music on film

A still from ‘This Much I Know To Be True’
A still from ‘This Much I Know To Be True’

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As Nick Cave walks across the studio, we hear his voice on the soundtrack. He’s grumbling about bandmate Warren Ellis and film-maker Andrew Dominik, who’s making a documentary on them. “They like to go on about accidental nature of art…. There’s no such thing as accidents.” Just as he says this, there’s a sound and the camera lurches downwards—its operator has probably tripped over something. We then cut to Cave sitting at his desk, launching into a complicated answer to a question we never hear by saying, “I think accidents is the wrong word…”

This is one of the few light-hearted moments in a heavy-hearted film, which also found its genesis in an accident. In 2015, Nick Cave was completing his album Skeleton Tree when his 15-year-old son Arthur died in a fall. With an album to promote but no will to answer questions about the tragedy, Cave asked Dominik, whom he has collaborated with on films and known for decades, if he would like to document that time in his life. The result was One More Time With Feeling, a black and white film with off-the-cuff interviews with Cave and Ellis, scenes of them performing the album’s tracks, and a digressive voice-over by Cave.

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Arthur’s death isn’t spoken of directly but it hangs over the film, making the already doomy songs of Skeleton Tree seem like they came after the fact, even though they were mostly written before. There is, however, a melancholy splendour to the studio sequences: the messianic Ellis, with his long white beard, arms outstretched, shaping the music with minute movements in the air; Cave complaining he doesn’t know what the chords are, then playing an exceptionally beautifully figure on the piano. In one stunning sequence, the camera is placed on a circular track, with the musicians playing in the middle. Strobe lights flash disorientingly as images are superimposed on one another—a startling interpretation by one artist of another’s fragmented present.

There are flashing lights in This Much I Know To Be True (2022) too. Cave and Ellis, both in dark blue suits, surrounded by the deep browns and blacks of an abandoned factory floor, begin the slow intro to ‘Ghosteen Speaks’. As the camera glides around them, lights flash on and off, creating dramatic warm swatches of illumination, a visual answer to the shimmering chords. As Cave launches into the chorus, their irradiance goes up a notch, a shower of disco lights. In the 2016 film, the effect had been unsettling; here it feels euphoric.

This Much I Know To Be True is, structurally, the same film as One More Time With Feeling. Dominik directs. Cave and Ellis perform songs from their album Ghosteen and give interviews. Cave shows off ceramic sculptures of the Devil he has been working on. Ellis animatedly talks up his copy of Emily Dickinson’s Herbarium. Yet, some crucial things are different. There’s no voice-over. The film is in handsome, sober colour. And the pall of death has lifted. There’s a calm to the proceedings, a kind of quiet euphoria.

The performances were recorded in an abandoned factory in Bristol. It’s almost like Lars Von Trier’s 2003 film, Dogville: peeling walls, everything in the open, tracks laid out, a camera and its operators circling in the back. Both films call our attention to processes: songwriting, performance, rehearsal, filming. One More Time With Feeling begins with Ellis talking to the camera in a cab, but then something in the setup goes wrong and he’s asked to do it again. A little later, Cave is asked to repeat his entry into a room. We see the film crew mapping out shots, musicians trying to find the tune, engineers at their consoles. At one point, Dominik encourages Earl, Arthur’s twin, to take a photograph of a cameraperson on set, saying they will use it in the film.

Without making it sentimentally obvious, the Cave-Ellis relationship is at the heart of the second film. Dominik intercuts clips of them talking about their collaborative process. It’s like a lover’s argument, except they aren’t talking to each other. “A whole lot of shit happens, I mean, a whole lot of terrible shit happens, when Warren and me get into a room,” Cave says, suppressing a smile. Trying to nail ‘Waiting For You’, they stop and start, Cave complains, Ellis makes adjustments. But the most revealing moment is during ‘Bright Horses’. Ellis is at the piano, Cave at his microphone. But for the last stanza, Cave walks over and finishes the song sitting beside Ellis, Dominik framing them in a series of simple, moving two-shots.

I'll go out on a limb and I've never seen music shot more expressively than in This Much I Know to Be True. In the performance of ‘Lavender Fields’, Dominik and Robbie Ryan’s camera elegantly glides and weaves between Cave at a microphone, Ellis conducting a four-person string section, and a trio of backup singers. They all seem transported. Fittingly, no cuts interrupt the mood; it’s a four-minute take. I am travelling appallingly alone/ On a singular road, the song begins. Perhaps Cave in 2016 was appalling alone; he seems in a better place now, singing with great tenderness about a kingdom in the sky. It’s the hard-won joy of a ship coming into port. An extraordinary gift from Dominik to Cave, and to us.

This Much I Know To Be True is on MUBI.

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