‘This Much I Know to Be True’ Delves Into the Music of a Changed Nick Cave
Sometimes when capturing a musician on film, it is wise to let the music do the talking. Such is the approach of director Andrew Dominik when filming Australian music icon Nick Cave in “This Much I Know to Be True.” It is the second documentary by Dominik on Cave and feels like a reflective bookend to their last collaboration, 2016’s “One More Time with Feeling.” That was a powerful, black and white documentary on Cave grappling with the recent, tragic death of his 15-year-old son, Arthur. There’s less conversation and more performing in this new documentary, as if Cave is tired of spilling his soul on camera via conversation. While the music carries the familiar brooding Cave eloquence and literary spirit, there’s little doubt he’s a changed man. This documentary now carries even more striking resonance since it is releasing soon after the announcement of the death of another of Cave’s sons, 31-year-old Jethro, from causes as yet unrevealed.
“One More Time with Feeling” was a work of mourning centered on the recording of the album “The Skeleton Tree” by Cave and his band The Bad Seeds. Prominent in the lineup and in this documentary is band member and composer, Warren Ellis, who also collaborates with Cave on numerous side projects like film scores. The performances that dominate “This Much I Know to Be True” were part of the rehearsals for a tour covering two recent Cave releases, “Ghosteen” and “Carnage.” Unlike the previous documentary, Dominik shoots in color. The opening is rather comic as Cave reveals that he has retrained as a ceramist (to his manager’s distress) after fearing that making a living as a touring band would no longer be viable during lockdown. Undoubtedly Cave has talent as he shows off a ceramic series depicting the Devil’s life stages. There’s a palpable cheeriness to Cave absent in not just the last documentary (for obvious reasons), but even in 2014’s somewhat pretentious “20,000 Days on Earth.” He talks now like a survivor who has endured a searing emotional trauma.
Warren Ellis adds just as much light humor and serious insights into the creative process. Domink and the crew are astounded at how cluttered and disorganized Ellis’s desktop looks. The composer admits order isn’t natural to his character. Such creative anarchy also contributes to the eclectic music he makes with Cave, which these days can swerve from art rock to electronica to beat poetry. None of the songs performed get particularly ferocious and instead float in elegant hazes which Dominik captures with rich lighting, sometimes having the light pulse along with choruses and notes. The effect can be rather hypnotic during a number like “Spinning Song,” where Dominik tracks around Cave in a dreamy swirl. These are also not synced performances but live playing and singing, so there’s a more solid, organic feel than in a synth-heavy album like “Ghosteen.” A live chorus also adds real impact to much of the music. There are still some darker songs like “Hand of God” and “White Elephant,” where Cave takes on the tone of some fire and brimstone preacher in the way he performs.
In the few moments where Cave sits down to just talk, Dominik captures some striking insights. Always seeming to be eternally dressed in a black suit, Cave reads over comments sent by fans, some who write to him with real yearning and pain. When he can he takes the time to write back with encouraging honesty. In “One More Time with Feeling,” Cave would stare into a mirror and notice his baggy eyes and other signs of his emotional distress. Here, he looks more comfortable and admits he now tries to not label himself a musician or even writer. He just wants to be a good citizen, friend and father. We get a glimpse of an endearing vulnerability in Cave when he facetimes with his son Earl, who is now an actor appearing in films like “True History of the Kelly Gang.” The spaces where the music is performed are large spaces in Brighton and London, with the look of cathedral interiors draped in darkness.
The relationship between Cave and Dominik goes far back. Cave and Ellis composed the score for Dominik’s masterful western, “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” as well as for his much-anticipated Marilyn Monroe biopic for Netflix, “Blonde.” This adds a certain level of comfort for the filmmaker and subject. Dominik jokes around with Cave and pokes a bit of fun at him and Ellis like old friends. Most artists build personas. With Cave this is most evident when he performs the music, which is made up of songs that play like stories he performs and expresses. Instead of just being a glossy concert film, there’s added personal value when Cave comes down to earth and becomes a regular person. Tragedy seems to have helped him shed some of the protective shell of his stage image. He was always a dynamic performer, now he’s also an individual who has lost much. Tragically, he has now suffered a new blow with the death of another son. The capacity of life to injure us spares no one, famous or unknown. Cave has been channeling his pain into his art. He’s lucky to have an avenue in which to create and share.
“This Much I Know to Be True” releases May 11 in select theaters.