Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – 'One More Time With Feeling' film review
There’s a temptation, whenever a major biographical event occurs in an artist’s life, to frame all their subsequent work around that moment. Nick Cave is no exception: the received wisdom is that 1997’s The Boatman’s Call is his response to breaking up with PJ Harvey, and that newfound love and sobriety is reflected in The Good Son’s calmer palette.
Accordingly, when Cave’s 15-year-old son Arthur died tragically last July after falling from a clifftop in Brighton, it was perhaps assumed that the next Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds album – then already in production – would be consumed by that shocking event. The film that accompanies its release, One More Time With Feeling, acts as the definitive public statement about Arthur’s death and as a primer to the new album Skeleton Tree, but also exists to confirm that the memory of Arthur Cave is woven into every fibre of record.
But it also rejects the idea that Arthur’s death was somehow a source of inspiration, however bleak. Instead, it suggests the opposite: “We all hope for this dramatic event in our life that we can write about,” admits Cave at one point, “but this trauma, it was very damaging to the creative process.” The clear message from One More Time With Feeling is that some things change you, irrevocably and violently, and there is simply nothing to be done about it. In that way, it’s not so much an upsetting or even heartbreaking film, but just an emotionally exhausting experience in which there is no redemption, just helplessness and the ensuing stoicism. That Arthur’s death is not explicitly acknowledged until nearly halfway through the film – the tacit implication being that, at one level, Cave’s songs and opinions presented hitherto could almost be universal, or fiction – reinforces that rejection of catharsis.
Shot almost entirely in black and white, the film takes the form of a standard rock album companion flick with all the usual tropes: live takes and snippets of conversation from the studio are artfully interspersed with interviews. Were Skeleton Tree to have come out under any different circumstances, a documentary like this would be no more than pretty fluff to chuck into the album’s deluxe box set.
With the existing backdrop, though, both the new music and the interviews are uncomfortably compelling. Early in the film, Cave describes how he no longer believes in the “pleasing resolve” of narrative songs, finding “distressing logic much more true”, and confesses how he no longer knows how to write. The observation imbues the following scene, of Cave and Bad Seeds fiddle player Warren Ellis improvising a song, with an unexpected potency. Equally, moments of poignancy pepper the entire picture: at one point, Cave mislays his pen in the studio and sighs, resigned, “just file it under lost things”. At another, Cave contemplates whether accidents exist, or whether people just put themselves in situations where they can chance upon good or bad luck.
Thankfully, however, Andrew Dominik’s sensitive directorial touch prevents One More Time With Feeling from ever getting too mawkish or navel-gazing with the inclusion of several genuinely funny asides involving Ellis, cast here as a sort of endlessly supportive mental crutch for Cave. His jokes clearly lighten the mood in the studio, but also have the same effect on the film: when he rounds off a particularly moving violin take with a hearty “good one! Cuppa tea!” in his avuncular Australian twang, one can’t help but feel grateful that Cave has friends like him.
Indeed, One More Time With Feeling never wallows in its own desperation, and even allows a slither of sunshine to warm the cold black and white palette when Cave’s wife and Arthur’s twin brother Earl visit the singer in the studio. The way the pair embrace Cave, and Earl’s accompanying expression towards his father, is a welcome balm on an otherwise quite emotionally pulverising film.
Six of Skeleton Tree’s eight songs are performed during One More Time With Feeling, at varying stages of completion, but so heavy is the surrounding emotional baggage that they barely register as new Nick Cave songs, and more as just further outpourings of grief to accompany the interview footage. The slow pace and heady atmosphere is reminiscent of the fug of last Bad Seeds album Push The Sky Away, but searching for an artistic continuum here feels akin to looking for political similarities between 10th and 12th September 2001.
As if aware of that futility, there’s a moment half an hour in when Cave compliments Bad Seeds drummer Jim Sclavanos on his recently regrown beard, having appeared clean-shaven in an earlier scene. “It looks good,” smiles Cave. “But,” he gestures to the cameras, “what about continuity?” “Fuck continuity,” grins Sclavanos back at his bandmate. In a film full of portentous, sometimes prophetic asides, it’s the most telling of the lot.