Nick Cave takes centre stage in documentary This Much I Know To Be True – here’s our review.
Helmed by Andrew Dominik, the brilliant filmmaker behind The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, This Much I Know To Be True takes the audience behind the scenes of a recorded performance of Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds’ last two albums, Ghosteen and Carnage – two works which have come to represent a significant shift for the band and for Nick Cave’s personal life. It is a moving and entrancing demonstration of the power of both albums as well as the bond between Cave and longtime collaborator Warren Ellis.
Some may enter This Much I Know To Be True expecting something like 20,000 Days On Earth, a previous Cave documentary which dug deep into his artistic process and internal monologue. That film was an interesting comment on the documentary format itself, as well as Cave’s persona, and was full of embellishment and fictionalisation. Though there is some similar verbal reflection here, This Much I Know To Be True is comparatively devoid of narrative hijinks. It is more of a continuation of One More Time With Feeling, a previous documentary also directed by Dominik which detailed the creation of Skeleton Tree. In both cases Dominik takes a step back, allowing the music to speak for itself.
Though elsewhere this could run the risk of making the film feel like nothing more than a live concert, it doesn’t because the songs themselves provide an emotionally satisfying narrative. The journey between Ghosteen and Carnage is an intensely emotional one of tragedy turning gradually into hope. Too much discourse would potentially take the focus away from the intrinsic power of the songs, which Dominik does well to recognise.
In focusing on the music, This Much I Know To Be True actually enhances it, using the tools of cinema to provide a definitive listening experience of both albums. Where 20,000 Days On Earth mainly told, this film primarily shows. In one brilliant moment a long-time friend of Nick Cave, Marianne Faithfull, records a spoken word passage which Warren Ellis then configures to play in reverse – this ends up being the background noise heard in Galleon Ship. Such snippets of musical creation are a brilliant way of taking the audience through the artistic process without explaining it verbally.
Even though songs like Bright Horses and Hollywood are still moving when heard on an iPhone, to hear them projected with such crisp sound and to see the emotion of Cave and Ellis’ performance elevates them exponentially. Several moments are tear-inducing partly because of their beauty, but especially because of the background behind the songs. Ghosteen in particular tackles the tragic loss of Cave’s son in 2015, and the shadow cast by that event looms large over the music.
The synergetic bond between Cave and Ellis is on full display as the camera swirls around them, always keeping both in full view. This constant, circular panning allows for their relationship to be seen more fully and more purely than it has been presented previously. Even the moody lighting adds to the experience, hypnotically moving in tandem with the instrumentals.
Like the best music documentaries, the film also finds time to allow the musicians to share snippets of their personal life and artistic process. One of the highlights is seeing Cave and Ellis describe each other, each of them making different observations whilst making it clear that they have a pretty special bond, one perhaps infused by the contrast between them. Ellis appears chaotic and dishevelled, whilst Cave is careful and well-groomed – a clash which always seems conducive to the strength of their collaborations.
It is also great to see Cave muse over the significance of his website, The Red Hand Files, which is his main method of communication with his fans. In a slightly odd opening scene, we even get to see Cave’s new hobby – biblical ceramics. Like any good documentary, you come away feeling like you know the artists better than you did before.
Even though This Much I Know To Be True’s simplicity is key to its charm, a deeper dive into the creation of both albums would certainly have added an extra layer of interest. Still, given the fact that One More Time With Feeling already thoroughly detailed the band’s process during the making of Skeleton Tree, it would have been somewhat repetitive to do the same here. Dominik’s previous film also covered the connection between Cave’s personal loss and his creative process, so the filmmakers cannot be blamed for refraining from repeating such difficult questions here.
Ultimately, This Much I Know To Be True doesn’t pretend to be about much more than the songs themselves, so your enjoyment of it largely relies upon the degree of affection you hold for Nick Cave’s music. For fans of the cult legend, and of Ghosteen and Carnage in particular, Dominik’s film is essential viewing – it uses the power of cinema to enhance two already brilliant albums to engaging and poignant effect.
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