In light of the release of documentary This Much I Know To Be True, we take a look at Nick Cave’s contribution to cinema.

Even though Nick Cave isn’t exactly a mainstream musician, you wouldn’t be blamed for thinking he was given the extent of his impact across other art forms such as poetry, novel-writing and most of all, cinema. Following three fantastic documentaries in 20,000 Days On Earth, One More Time With Feeling, and This Much I Know To Be True, it’s clear that something about Cave is inherently made for the big screen.

Just look at his involvement in film across the years. Cave has written screenplays, most notably for the brilliant western The Proposition as well as for Lawless, an inferior but nonetheless-decent cowboy flick starring the likes of Shia Laboeuf and Tom Hardy. Cave also wrote the aforementioned, semi-fictionalised 20,000 Days On Earth, an interesting documentary about the creation of the 2011 Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds album Push The Sky Away.

More famously, he and fellow Bad Seed Warren Ellis have lent their musical talents to some brilliant film scores for The Proposition, The Road, and most notably The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford. Interestingly, the film was directed by Andrew Dominik, who also helmed This Much I Know To Be True and One More Time With Feeling his continuing partnership with Cave (who will score his next film, Blonde) arguably acts as a kind of testament to his particular aptness for cinema.

Another feature of Cave’s relevance to the big screen is how frequently his songs are used in films, and how well they work when they are. Remember that scene when Harry and Hermione dance together in Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows: Part 1? Nick Cave. Or the bit where Lois mourns Superman in Zack Snyder’s Justice League? Nick Cave. Most significantly, Cave’s music is all over the hit BBC show Peaky Blinders, the theme song to which is the now classic Red Right Hand. In fact, Peaky Blinders is so full of Bad Seeds tunes that its identity has become somewhat inextricable from the band. Things arguably started to go downhill from season 5, when the show stopped playing them on such a regular basis.

Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders

So why is Nick Cave’s music so cinematic? As he states in This Much I Know to be True, he sees himself as a musician AND as a writer. Perhaps because of this his lyrical style is very narrative, and film is, after all, a narrative medium. When you listen to a Nick Cave song you are often presented with unusually detailed characters, locations, and a sense of a beginning, middle and end – much like conventional storytelling.

Red Right Hand seems to eerily describe the world of Peaky Blinders and of its titular character Tommy Shelby, without having done so on purpose. Stagger Lee is a (very funny) cover of an American mythical song about a black pimp going into a bar in the Old South and murdering “Billy Dilly” – it plays out like a darkly comic western folk tale, despite also being a rock song. Whether writing music, poetry or film, it is clear that Cave enjoys being a storyteller, and there is a natural crossover between the mediums he lends his pen to.

The types of things that Cave likes to write about are inherently dramatic. He tackles heady issues more frequently than easily digestible ones. He is, for example, obsessed with religion – The Devil and Jesus reoccur as symbols throughout his music and in his own life. In the oddly funny opening scene of This Much I Know To Be True, Cave takes us through a series of ceramics he created charting the birth and death of the Devil. Evil, good, death, grief, faith and love are recurring themes in the Bad Seeds’ discography.

This kind of subject matter is bottomless and intensely dramatic, so it makes sense for music not to be enough for Cave as a means to explore it. That much is made evident by the thematic parallel between Cave’s screenplays and his songs. The Proposition, a western tale about a man choosing whether to kill or save his villainous brother, has a premise that could easily work as a Bad Seeds tune.

As well as the lyrics, throughout their career there has been an increasing sense of cinematic atmosphere in The Bad Seeds’ instrumentals. The reason for this gradual shift? Warren Ellis. Cave first collaborated with Ellis during the making of Let Love In, for which he recorded violin, an instrument which instantly makes things sound movielike. As Cave jokes about in This Much I Know To Be True, Ellis has since had an increasingly prominent role in creating The Bad Seeds’ music. And it shows. The recent Carnage wasn’t released as a Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds album, but rather as a Nick Cave and Warren Ellis album.

Publicity still from The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford

The combination of Cave’s piano and Ellis’ violin creates a sound that feels intensely dramatic, and thus appropriate for cinema. It is difficult to imagine Cave having had such an impact on the film score scene without the influence of his creative partner.

As well as his music, Cave has an appearance that is made for cinema. In addition to being in documentaries about himself, he acts too, having made a cameo appearance in The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, as well as recently featuring as H.G. Wells in The Electric Life Of Louis Wain. Screen presence is not unlike stage presence, which is part and parcel of being a good rockstar.

Elvis Presley and Mick Jagger have a swagger and magnetism that draws your eyes towards them – there’s something about the rockstar figure that’s inherently worthy of documentation. Cave has some of that magnetism, but that isn’t to say that he isn’t unique in appearance. His look, though iconic, is gaunt, intimidating and near vampiric. His slightly otherworldly disposition explains his success in front of the camera as well as behind it – he has the kind of image that begs attention.

Of course, Cave isn’t the only rock musician to have a big impact on the film industry. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross have put out some of the best film scores of the century since their days in Nine Inch Nails. In a similar vein to Warren Ellis, Jonny Greenwood imbued Radiohead’s music with an increasingly orchestral sound before becoming one of best film composers around, with works such as Phantom Thread and There Will Be Blood. What makes Nick Cave unique in comparison is the fact that he offers both the music and the screen presence that say Jonny Greenwood, doesn’t have.

There are a variety of reasons for Cave’s success in the world of film. His talent, artistic curiosity, iconic rockstar image and special partnership with Warren Ellis all explain his particular knack for cinema. He arguably deserves even more credit than he gets for continuing to perform such a difficult juggling act, but his fans surely appreciate his continued significance as a distinctly indie icon.

Certain images: BigStock

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