This Much I Know to Be True is a flowing, amorphous music-doc experience, both capturing and emulating the particularity of Nick Cave’s late-career art.
The past decade has witnessed a considerable run of impressive Nick Cave documentaries, an organic production logic presenting itself across the first three titles. 2014’s 20,000 Days on Earth found Cave flexing his imaginative juices, the film’s semi-fictional texture and 24-hour structure offering an appropriately singular, experimental approach to the form, of a part with his recent sonic innovations which saw The Bad Seeds’ moving toward more minimalist and ambient territory with 2013 album Push the Sky Away (the production of which features prominently in the doc). The confluence of Cave’s creative pursuits over those few years (including the publication of his second novel in 2009) reflected an artist in flux, the sum efforts an articulation of his continued evolution and committed exploratory spirit. The tragic death of his 15-year-old son Arthur in 2015 proved the impetus for Andrew Dominik’s One More Time with Feeling, a more straightforward documentation of The Bad Seeds’ recording of Skeleton Tree, an album which moved further into the synth-heavy, avant-garde sound of Push the Sky Away, but with a more pronounced melancholy. 2019 opus Ghosteen took Cave’s facility with storytelling and emotional rawness to their logical conclusion, delivering a metaphor-rich, swirling soundscape of an album, shaping the sorrow that so palpably informed Skeleton Tree into something both more mythic and exorcistic. But only a few months after the album’s release, the Covid pandemic ended The Bad Seeds’ world tour, and so Cave pivoted to Idiot Prayer, a concert film and live album of stripped-down, piano-only tracks performed by Cave at London’s Alexandra Palace, filmed by DP par excellence Robbie Ryan, and considered by the musician to be the “luminous and heartfelt climax” to this loose trilogy.
But here we are in 2022, and committed collaborator Cave is back with another documentary, this time sharing headliner status with longtime friend and conspirator Warren Ellis (as he did on 2021 album Carnage), and bringing back both Dominik to helm and Ryan to shoot. Cave has always presented something of an eccentric front, and in tandem with a post-Vegas persona that slides easily between swagger-rich and deeply earnest, it’s not surprising that this sustained portraiture of the past decade continues to hold appeal and strip away layers. To that end, This Much I Know to Be True opens in classic Cave fashion: with the artist introducing viewers to yet another passion — ceramics. He takes us through an 18-piece series that tells the story of the devil, from birth to death; the scene holds no real connection to the film that follows, but quickly (re-)establishes Cave’s penchant for macabre but deeply human storytelling, his boldness as an artist across mediums, and his ease with reinvention. Following this cold open, Dominik takes us to the ostensible content of the film, which is something altogether more abstracted than in previous docs: rather than adopting any metafictional conceptualization or capturing a tangible something — the production of a record, a concert — This Much I Know to Be True seeks to bottle the collaborative artistry and mutuality of Cave and Ellis’ decades-long collaboration, specifically through a five-day shoot at Battersea Arts Centre where the duo (along with the accompaniment of singers and a string quartet) produce the first-ever performances of a mix of tracks from Ghosteen and Carnage in anticipation of their first tour since the pandemic’s onset.
That’s to say, there’s less happening here than in previous Cave documentaries, its reason for existence less pronounced but perhaps more explicable after three previous ones: there’s pleasure to watching Cave perform and to bearing witness to his musical creations, likely the reason these films are establishing an orbit of willing, in-demand collaborators. This conceptual minimalism is largely to the film’s benefit, and Cave and Ellis prove to be an ample core for This Much I Know to Be True. Ryan’s camera revolves and glides through the performance space, capturing intimate details: Cave’s wonky gyrations and pervasive hand movements, the way Ellis seems to disappear trance-like into their sound, the synchronized light work that turns any number of moments into striking compositions. All this is broken up with interstitial moments that are likewise intimate — a visit to Ellis’ apartment is particularly illuminating and hilarious — and a few flourishes that acknowledge the artifice of the production, like a dolly shot on a circular track that captures both the beautiful aesthetic design of the shoot and the behind-the-scenes nuts and bolts of boom mics and crew. It’s an important moment, one that at once acknowledges the way the Cave and Ellis’ orchestrations and synths fill a space, a portrait of the artists in their element but also a reminder of those outside the circle, those in whom their particular art takes root. Most importantly, more than in any previous work taking Cave as subject, This Much I Know to Be True understands the immense pleasure of simply watching Cave, particularly for the contingency who find his most recent two albums to be among the best of his career. It’s unclear, then, exactly how this latest doc fits into the artist’s conception of his films: should the prior trilogy be expanded to a quadrilogy in our understanding, or should this be regarded as something other? Ultimately, though, it doesn’t matter, and the strength of the flowing, amorphous This Much I Know to Be True is in suggesting the fallacy of such organizing principles altogether, sidelining any instinct to justify its existence in the way all art, to some degree, must. Cave as a musician has long understood this. Dominik has taken some cues, and the result is truly lovely.
Originally published as part of SXSW Film Festival 2022 — Dispatch 5.