It’s human nature to try to understand the inner machinations of our musical idols. We pick apart their every word and chord, and shamelessly probe them about the events that compelled them to bear their soul in a song.
No-one knows this better than Nick Cave, and the story goes that early this year, in a Brighton newsagent, he saw a copy of Mojo and realised that he couldn’t face the inquisition he'd receive during the promotion for his just-recorded album, Skeleton Tree.
His reticence was understandable, given the tragic circumstances that pre-empted the record’s origins: Cave’s son Arthur, 15, died tragically falling from the cliff above Brighton’s Ovingdean Gap in July 2015, after taking LSD. As a man that’s been making music for 30 years, Cave knew any interview he gave in support of Skeleton Tree would revolve around what happened that awful day, as well meaning but nosey journalists posed the sort of questions they probably wouldn’t ask their own family.
So Cave called Andrew Dominik, director of Chopper and The Assassination Of Robert Ford By The Coward Jess James, in February and asked him to make a film that comprised performances of songs from the new record. That film became One More Time With Feeling, and during its recording it transformed into something so much more than just a performance album, as Dominink documented a man, his family and his band dealing with the ripple effects of true grief.
The film itself exists roughly in two halves. The opening hour is lowkey, almost jovial at times, and not nearly as searing as one might expect. Obviously everyone’s aware that Arthur’s death hangs over the project, but it's rarely referred to directly, though there is an interlude where Cave’s fellow Bad Seed, Warren Ellis, berates the camera crew for making him discuss it.
Ellis himself is the the secret hero of the piece; forever lurking stage left, hirsute, besuited and pootling on a Korg or fiddle, but always with an eye on the slick-haired snakeman who’s been his musical conspirator for the last 30 years. There’s a lovely sequence of them jamming, and Cave himself poses the question. “What would I have done without Warren?”
The second half sees the introduction of the Cave’s wife Susie Bick, and the passages featuring them both offer an insight into the bickering that inhabits any long term relationship - “She [Susie] changes the function of a room while you sleep” - and how they’ve both jumped into work as a means of coping and distraction. A scene where she shows a picture that five year old Arthur painted of the area near where he eventually died is nigh unbearable, and they [Bick and Cave] cradle each other with the familiarity of two people who have shared more tears than seems fair.
It’s the humanity of it all that shines most starkly, and the crew also play a deceptively important role in this. As it’s a 3D film there’s two cameras and we often see the other crew in shot. Dominik’s voice is heard intermittently, and at one point, off-camera, he says to Cave, “This isn’t easy for me either.” It’s unexpected, and emphasizes that grief’s a shared emotion, and that they're not just making a film but a communal memoriam that we’re all - composer, director, interviewee, audience - somehow partaking in.
Regardless, it's a humanity based in pragmatic realism, no surprise for a man who’s most well-known song 'Into My Arms' starts with, “I don’t believe in an interventionist God.” The latter half of the film is peppered with one-to-one interviews with Cave and at times his frankness is jarring: “People say he lives in my heart. I say “yeah’, but he doesn’t live at all."
As for the album, I’ve only listened to it a few times but like the film it’s an uneasy, otherworldly piece that will never exist on its own terms, without consideration for the circumstances of its tragic genesis. Yet it is imbued with the same sense of warmth that the film blessedly ends on.
It’s not overcooking it to call the last hour the most moving section of a film I’ve ever seen. I’ve certainly never been surrounded by so many crying people in one room as when the lights went up, outside of a funeral.
Artistically, visually, musically, emotionally, I feel like I’ll be carrying it around for a while, and though I’m not sure I would watch it again - like Requiem For A Dream, or Kids - it’s something everyone maybe should see, regardless of whether they’re a Cave aficionado. And for those that are fans, incredibly, in not wanting to talk about what happened, he’s given away more than we ever could have imagined.
One More Time With Feeling is showing at cinemas across the country. Skeleton Tree is out now, and you can buy it here