there is something inherently cinematic about the work of Australian musicians and composers Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. The pair have collaborated on a range of film scores ranging from John Hillcoat’s 2005 antipodean western The proposal (for which Cave also wrote the script) to the upcoming blond, director Andrew Dominik’s adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’ historical fiction novel about “The Inner Life of Marilyn Monroe.” But even outside the cinema, Ellis and Cave’s compositions have a widescreen reach, evoking intimate aural landscapes of love and death – religion and fairy tale intertwined. These are musical parables of grief and redemption, echoing Cave’s belief that “we all live our lives perilously, in a state of peril, on the brink of disaster”.
In his 2016 movie One more time with feelingDominik (with whom the couple had worked on the underrated masterpiece) The Murder of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) documented the creative process behind the Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds album Skeleton Tree, a record forged in the wake of a terrible family tragedy. Now Dominik turns his attention to a new chapter in Cave and Ellis’ musical saga as they prepare songs from the albums Ghosteen and massacre for a tour in 2021.
Shot without an audience, in cavernous church-like locations in Brighton and London, where white lights illuminate pools of visible darkness, the performances are utterly captivating, captured on hypnotic spiral cameras by Irish cinematographer Robbie Ryan. The atmosphere is stripped down and austere, allowing the songs to speak for themselves as they transport us from this world to the next.
With characteristic wry humor, Dominik opens film with Cave in which he declares that during the lockdown he took the opportunity to retrain as a ceramist (against the advice of his manager). The fruits of his labors include a series of figurines telling the devil’s pathos-laden tale; from birth, through war, to damnation and remorse. Cave later reveals that while he might have once described himself as a musician and writer, he now aspires to shed those labels in favor of a husband, father, friend, and citizen.
He is also clearly a preacher, holding his fingers like a saint or a pope, singing songs whose pulpit revelry is enhanced by the gospel-like harmonies of his backing singers. There’s also a touch of Vegas in his signature suit and open-neck shirt combo—a familiar uniform that seems to imply the good, the bad, and the ugly, all wrapped up in a tantalizingly sleek package.
Ellis is no less striking, a brooding Catweazle-esque figure on keyboard and violin, part Merlin, part hillbilly – Paganini meets Alvin Stardust. Whether conducting as a musical Kafka or playing the flute in a cardie, Ellis strikes a thrilling mystical figure, making it all the more fun when guest artist Marianne Faithfull asks incredulously, “Did he just call you Waz?” It’s a throwaway moment, but one that embodies the balance between the ecstatic and the everyday that this documentary captures so perfectly.
Conversations about the disparate working methods of Ellis and Cave are striking, with the latter insisting that Ellis is an agent of chaos who is always in “send” (rather than “receive”) mode, making it impossible to simply give him anything. “A lot of horrible things happen when Warren and I walk into a room,” Cave admits. “But there are those moments when it’s just…” Ellis calls those moments” meditative”; Cave calls them “transcendent.”
“Behind all this – the music, the words, the suits, the sadness, the tenderness and shame and guilt and joy – who are you?” asks someone on Cave’s website, The Red Hand files† It’s a question Dominik doesn’t try to answer, but rather reflects, trusting his audience to make a decision about one of the most innovative collaborations the world of film and music has to offer today.
Only in cinemas on Wednesday 11 May; digital release to follow