By Chris Ricci
“Someone needs to sing the blood, and someone needs to sing the pain” -Nick Cave
In Ancient Greek mythology, the troubadour Orpheus had the ability to charm any living creature on Earth with his beautiful and deeply emotional songs. One day, his love was taken from him after succumbing to the venom of snakes, and Orpheus descended to Hades to bring Eurydice back to life. Despite playing music that made Hades weep, he broke his vow to not look back at Eurydice as they returned to Earth, and slowly he watched her vanish before his eyes. From there, there was a constant air of concern, not only for Orpheus’ well-being, but also for his poetry and music. How could someone who faced such loss continue, and if they did, how would they sound?
Legendary Australian singer, songwriter, and author Nick Cave has been at the cutting edge of music and artistry since the early 70s, and has had a consistent output since. His early band, The Birthday Party, established both a proto-punk sound and served as one of the first legitimate punk acts in the world. From there, Nick destroyed his own sound and formed The Bad Seeds which served as a catalyst for the post-punk genre. Through his career, Nick has released twenty two albums with four separate groups, and each one stands alone both in sound and in meaning. Nick’s dark and introspective lyrics are matched only by the tightness of his band. Despite the lineup changing over the years, Nick has formulated incredible relationships with the core members, and long-time band leader Warren Ellis knows Nick Cave as well as Nick does at this point.
But what happens when you no longer remember who you are?
About a year ago, Arthur Cave, Nick’s 15 year old son with fashion designer and model Susie Bick, fell to his death off a cliff near Nick’s studio in England. The tragedy shattered his family, and the radio silence from both him and his bandmates suggested that Nick Cave’s career was concluded. Then, suddenly, the silence was broken and it was revealed that Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds not only have completed their sixteenth album, but a film was shot during the conclusion of the album’s creation. More recently it was revealed that the album, The Skeleton Tree, was being worked on in secret before the death of Arthur, which made many wonder: what did it sound like when he started, and what could it possibly sound like now?
One More Time With Feeling is the documentary shot during the Skeleton Tree sessions, and it’s release was limited to a one-night only event. Fortunately for local music fans, CinemaSalem was one of the few cinemas nation-wide that got a chance to present it. Prior to the screening, journalist and film critic Peter Keough sat down with Paul Van Ness and discussed the idea of narrative in music films and how, in the end, there’s a fine line between fact and fiction even in a documentary sense. Like everyone in the theater, Peter hadn’t seen the film, but knew beyond a reasonable doubt that One More Time With Feeling would be a completely different take on Nick’s life than his previous film, 20,000 Days on Earth. When explaining to the audience what happened to Nick’s family, audible gasps resonated from the audience, as many folks in attendance didn’t realize how deep this film truly went, and nobody was truly prepared for the documentary that followed.
The film opens with a discussion between Warren Ellis and the unnamed man behind the camera (the director? The producer? God? It’s never made clear) that abruptly ends with Ellis stating how he “doesn’t know how to talk about Nick’s personal life.” It’s clear throughout One More Time With Feeling that nobody truly does, as the details of what happened to Nick ultimately remain a mystery until the closing minutes, and even then, there’s a sense of mystery and intrigue that’s never fully explained. However, that’s not the point of the film: the film is not just about the specific event in Nick Cave’s life, but it’s about trauma, and this attempt to rectify and rebuild after a deeply traumatic experience is as brutal as it is enlightening. The movie also presents his new album in full, and gives the viewer an incredible context for the deeply heart-wrenching songs that build and eventually chop down The Skeleton Tree.
Throughout the film, there are three distinctly different versions of Nick. The first is the one who decided that the documentary being shot during this time in his life would be helpful. The second is the Nick we see throughout the film that is constantly questioning the previous Nick’s decision to do this while also attempting to finish The Skeleton Tree. The final Nick is a disembodied voice that acts more as a retrospective inner-monologue throughout. This particular Nick is the most prominent, and the voice not only serves as an almost comic relief, but also presents a series of spoken word interludes that are even more heartbreaking than the man we see on screen. These three versions of him push and pull at each other throughout as they all try to find an answer to the questions “why?” and “what should we do now?” A perfect summation of the film happens early on when the man behind the camera tells Nick that his songs “seem to no longer be narrative lyrically” and, as Nick sits in contemplation of his statement, he perks up and says that “nothing is really narrative” and explains his thoughts that the only true narrative is disassociated.
One More Time With Feeling is just that: a dissociated look at a man who is trying to go through the motions despite the horrors handed to him from the real world. He quips about waking up as a man he doesn’t know while the rest of the world is familiar to him and watching almost helplessly as this unknown version of himself travels aimlessly through life. He discusses how people seem to think they know how to help him cope, and they give him advice and tell them how his son will always be in his heart. Though, for someone like Nick, this is far from humbling, as the repetitive nature drives him mad. He discusses how he knows how his son will never come back, but instead of trying to change how he views this, he is trying painfully hard to accept it and move on. Indeed, there are overwhelming visual aids to this throughout, including sequences where Nick is playing on the piano while a camera crew visually circles around him. At times, it feels almost Truman Show-esque; Nick feels like a character in a movie about his life, and there are many moments where that character seems to be nothing more than an extra.
Trauma is perfectly illustrated in One More Time With Feeling through his interactions with his wife. Throughout, Susie is shown rummaging and moving furniture around habitually, while Nick sits by the wayside in both an understanding manner and a critical one. He describes himself as two-dimensional while also describing Susie as “incredibly 3D” and her means of coping, despite making sense to the viewing audience, seem to add to his distress. In a seemingly throwaway scene, Susie arrives at the studio as a surprise with his son/Arthur’s twin Earl. The three hug for a short while, but the embrace feels almost like an eternity. Not only was this Nick embracing his family, but also reaching for and grabbing for the same thing they were: normality. Nick describes time as “elastic” early on, but explains it in great detail later on. He talks about how trauma is, more or less, a fenced off area you’re attached to with a rubber band; you can walk away from it as far as possible, but eventually it will whip you back and thrust you back behind the fence. One can either live in fear of it, or one can move on. And as the end credits draw close, Nick proudly laments that him and his family have “decided to be happy” and to look back at what happened as a means to go towards the future.
The positive tone of the ending makes you wonder right away if that was hidden secretly throughout. If the witty commentary during times of deep reflection were a distraction from the real way Nick was coping with the loss. The viewer is left with these questions with an undeniable answer: despite the fact that you might want to view this film one more time with maybe a bit more feeling and understanding, the screening was only for one night. Sure, the film may see the light of day in a physical format, but should it? Should Nick’s means of coping during a time of such loss be that readily obtainable for voyeuristic eyes? Or should Orpheus do what Orpheus does best: bring the world to life with music, and show the world how he feels with his lyre?