In 2015, Nick Cave lost a son. That unthinkable tragedy, and Cave’s grappling with his own sense of mourning, were documented in the exquisite 2016 musical documentary, One More Time With Feeling. That film is a shattering and unblinking examination of the idea that life is nothing more than barely controlled chaos, and that all we can hope to do is react to the inevitable fallout as responsibly as humanly possible. It was both a unique showcase for Cave’s remarkable, fearlessly singular artistry, and also an uncommonly vulnerable window into the singer’s soul.
One More Time With Feeling is one of the great live music films ever made, in addition to acting as a terrific companion piece to Cave’s bruising, downbeat record “Skeleton Key.” The documentary was also directed by Killing Them Softly filmmaker Andrew Dominik, who has known Cave for going on decades now. Cave and frequent collaborator Warren Ellis composed the memorable funeral score for Dominik’s masterpiece, The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford; Cave enjoys a cheeky cameo late in that unforgettable revisionist Western, and, even before this, he lent his filmmaker pal a song to use in Dominik’s prison-psychodrama breakout, Chopper.
Both Cave and Dominik share more than a few of the same artistic preoccupations. Death, decay, messianic self-mythologizing, and spiritual rebirth all figure prominently in both men’s respective bodies of work. Both are partial to a downbeat, Gothic temperament, and both are fundamentally aesthetes at heart.
This Much I Know To Be True, then – which premiered at this year’s Berlin Film Festival before opening on May 11th as part of a global, one-day release strategy via Trafalgar Releasing – isn’t really about Dominik’s fertile creative collaborations with Cave. Rather, This Much I Know To Be True is a kind of rueful docu-sequel to One More Time With Feeling: one that hums with an ethereal beauty, shedding the moribund trappings of that 2016 film and in turn blossoming with a tangible sense of new possibility and even hope. It is a film about the act of learning not only learning to live with grief but maybe even learning how to channel it into your work. If One More Time With Feeling was the agony, This Much I Know To Be True is the ecstasy: the return to earthly paradise after the crash.
Dominik’s ravishing cinematic poem is also a warm and revealing portrait of the friendship and oft-uneasy creative alliance that exists between Cave and Warren Ellis: two individuals who truly could not be more different as human beings who, somehow, have managed to create some of the most hauntingly cohesive music you’ll ever hear when they find themselves in a rehearsal space together. If you are in any way a fan of Cave’s music, or if you’ve seen him play live, surely you are familiar with Ellis. The 57-year-old Australia native has become an increasingly critical element of the Nick Cave musical experience over the years: visually, he possesses the gaunt, somewhat perturbed look of a doomsday prophet, though based on the evidence presented in This Much I Know To Be True, he actually seems like a funnier, possibly more easygoing bloke than his swaggering rock n’ roll counterpart.
This Much I Know To Be True is, correspondingly, a looser, lighter film than One More Time With Feeling. It can be difficult, at least initially, to get a grip on what the movie’s center is, beyond its astute musings on Cave’s own creativity, which is to say nothing of the rhapsodic live tunes that we hear performed from Cave’s last two studio LPs, “Ghosteen” and “Carnage.” These are songs that radiate the energy of someone who has gone through hell and back and can count themselves fortunate enough to have made it out the other side in one piece. What’s more, is that Dominik and his crew have captured much of the astonishing concert footage with a nifty 360-degree camera track that allows us to see these songs unfold in all their mournful widescreen majesty.
And make no mistake, Cave is talking to us with these songs. Particularly in the devastating “Waiting For You,” he seems to be talking to his departed son. For an artist who so frequently traffics in metaphor and arch, knowingly baroque imagery, the naked candor, and vulnerability of these lyrics are disarming. Cage seems simultaneously broken and somehow restored: haunted by the fact that he will never get to hug his son again, and seemingly at peace with the idea that his beloved boy can now, at long last, rest quietly.
This Much I Know To Be True posits that the act of creating art is as close as any of us can hope to get to enlightenment. As a means of processing his pain, Cave has continued to explore new sounds, new tones, and new ways of creating music. In that regard, Dominik’s latest is far more focused on the painstaking act of making One More Time With Feeling. It feels like Cave has stepped out from the shadows and into the light, even if he’ll never totally lose the impeccable Goth cool we know and love for him.
Speaking of “new ways of creating music”: the live musical arrangements in This Much I Know To Be True, if anything, are even more impressive than the ones in One More Time With Feeling: the eerie, incandescent ambiance of “Ghosteen” sounds downright heavenly in this context, while the ominous cosmic stomp and explicitly threatening lyrics of “White Elephants” play out like a distorted aural stampede, one that’s eventually whipped into a hypnotic kind of neo-gospel fervor. Taken together, these songs create a righteous sonic spectacle and one that speaks to what a versatile, inimitable artist Cave ultimately is.
Both docs ultimately feel a piece with one another; indeed, it would be fascinating to watch them back-to-back and attempt to dissect the ways in which they complement each other. Both films are, at the end of the day, considerations of the value that art has in relationship to trauma and healing, and both can also be enjoyed as old-school song-and-light shows, filled with explosive exhibitions of brilliant music and arresting imagery.
In one of This Much I Know To Be True’s earliest and most illuminating moments, the filmmakers pay a visit to Cave’s crafts/ceramics workshop. As one might expect from this particular songwriter, Cave is seen toiling away on a series of porcelain sculptures depicting the devil himself at various stages in his life. This could be interpreted as nothing more than the spectacle of a master in middle age ruminating on a new pastime – or, you could read it as a casual depiction of a man constantly dancing, in Cave’s own words, “on the edge of calamity.”
‘This Much I Know to Be True’ Review: Nick Cave and Warren Ellis Conduct Beautiful Andrew Dominik-Directed Doc | SXSW 2022
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