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Doc Corner: Nick Cave and The Beatles Show Mixed Musical Results

Thankfully for us, Nick Cave is not a musician who is easily distilled into a formula blueprint. He isn’t an artist who is easy to pigeonhole and that means anybody who attempts to make a film about him is forced to think outside of the box. Consider 20,000 Days on Earth in which Cave celebrated his 20,000th day of living by driving around with friends like Kylie Minogue and Ray Winstone. That film, partly fictionalized, was only two years ago so if it feels somewhat excessive to have another Nick Cave documentary so soon then the circumstances around Cave’s life since then mean a lot has changed since his 20,000th day on Earth that has dramatically altered him.

One More Time with Feeling is directed by Cave’s friend Andrew Dominik who Cave had worked with on The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Like that film, this is another wholly singular film, the pairing of the two proving to bear the most unique of fruits. Initial sequences suggest that this is going to be a slog of a documentary, the pairing of famous director not known for documentary filmmaking and a famous subject who many filmmakers might just feel the need to point a camera at and shoot and feel as if their work is done.

That is blessedly not the case.

Speaking on a technical level, One More Time with Feeling is quite something. Sound design is impeccable, Benoit Debie and Alwin H. Kuchler’s black and white cinematography is sublime, and the editing of Shane Reid artful, particularly during one sequence – the musical collage of “Jesus Alone”, in which the various strands of the song’s recording (vocals, piano, strings, pedals) are assembled as if all happening at once – that sets the tone for the film to come.

The album that Cave and his bandmates The Band Seeds are recording is Skeleton Tree, written and partially recorded in late 2014 and through 2015. And for roughly the first half of One More Time with Feeling, the film suggests that there is nothing too out of the ordinary about the recording of the album. Most audiences will know otherwise, however, and once the elephant in the cinema is finally acknowledged openly, the film shifts into something altogether more special. I speak of the death of Cave’s son, Arthur, whose presence appears to linger within the lyrics of Cave’s songs despite being predominantly written before the tragic accident that now lends the album and the film a funereal sadness. Grief is etched across the framework of this film so painfully and never more so than in a sequence dedicated to the album track “I Need You” that many will find hard to not shed tears through as Cave's voice wavers and the camera lingering on his face.

In other scenes, Nick and his wife, Arthur’s mother, Susie, share their thoughts and memories about their son and what his death could possibly mean. It’s one of the most raw and direct explorations of grief that I have seen captured on screen in quite some time, especially so considering it comes from somebody so famous. It is during these scenes that Dominik’s directorial flares take a backseat allowing the flash to recede for moments, replaced by stripped bare minimalism. They are unforgettable moments in a film full of them including the ending, in which Arthur’s voice is finally heard singing a cover of Marianne Faithfull’s “Deep Water” over the end credits, a song written by Cave for Faithfull’s 2014 album Give My Love to London.

Compare this film to The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years, which pairs another famous filmmaker with another musical act. Unfortunately, if you’re like me and find Ron Howard to be a particularly bland director, then you’ll be disappointed to find that he’s no more exciting or daring when working in the realm of non-fiction. While he is gifted with genuinely excellent archival footage, restored to pristine condition that makes them feel revelatory, Howard doesn’t do anything with them beyond the expected. Eight Days a Week is a standard, chronological, talking head style doco that has little to offer anybody but die-hard fans of The Beatles. Nothing wrong with that, merely unambitious.

And that's a symptom of the film in general too, which appears to have no desire whatsoever to engage with The Beatles' music criticall speaking instead focusing on the band's excessive touring schedule in the first half of their career. It’s a novel way to differentiate itself from other documentaries about The Beatles, but by focusing primarily on the touring years (1963 to 1966), that means the film peters out with Howard and editor Paul Crowder not knowing how to end the film in anything but a title card that reads (I am likely paraphrasing, but only somewhat) “and then they never toured again." The irony being that as great a pop band as the boys from Liverpool were in their early career, their greatest works began once they stopped touring. Cruelly, however, they don’t even offer the band’s final performance on the rooftop of 3 Savile Row for more than a few minutes of screen time despite there being much more available as easily as on Vimeo and a restored version no doubt existing somewhere.

It can’t even be put down to One More Time with Feeling having the advantage of a living subject since Howard gives Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr nothing to do but sit in a drab studio telling stories. Could they not get them in the same room for an afternoon? They’re joined by archival interviews of George Harrison and John Lennon, although the latter curiously much less. They are both very different films, but it’s not a simple case of one film having the more fulfilling narrative. It’s about one director having a wealth of history on his side and not utilizing it to critically analyze his subject, while the other has a filmmaker who is offering its subject not just a means of expressing his grief, but allowing the audience engage with it and share their own, too. One More Time with Feeling is a special film. The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years, sadly, is not.

Release: Both films had exclusive runs, although Howard's film - which opened just last weekend - will likely hang around a bit longer.

Oscar Chances: I'm not sure whether the Cave doc skirted its "one day only" concept in NY/LA to qualify. Even so, it's a little bit out of the demographic for the doc branch. Having said that, they have been braver recently and something as formulaic as Howard's doc on The Beatles will surely sing to them predominantly as fan service and not a great film.

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Reader Comments (4)

In France too the Cave & Beatkes movies were screened one night only, I missed the Cave one (sold out, I arrived too late) but I saw the Ron Howard one and I agree with you on your comment. Bland and all over the place. The subject (the touring years) is hardly thought through, though the subject might have been interesting. We hardly hear them which is sad considering there are a few great songs to be heard ! After the screening of the documentary, the Shea Stadium was screened. At last Beatles song, sung live ! THAT was great at least

September 20, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterleduffpascal

I do want to see Eight Days a Week as I'm a fan of the Beatles but I'm more interested in the Nick Cave doc as I'm also a fan of his work.

September 20, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterSteven

I saw One More Time With Feeling, despite being a moderate Cave fan at best. It was one of the most extraordinary experiences I have had at the movies in a long time, the best use of 3D I've seen short of Gravity (there's an amazing use of 3D for shallow focus shots, which I've never seen before), and an incredibly stark unpicking of grief. Overwhelming but the best thing I've seen all year. I'd love it if it qualified for the Oscars, just out of principle.

September 20, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterLaika

Laika, I'm not sure if anywhere screened it in 3D in australia. Would have been an interesting experience.

Leduffpascal, the Cave doc got at least more than a day here. I got to see it on a Sunday evening. The Beatles has been extended beyond its original week-long session here after it did so well at the box office.

September 20, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

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