A rumour circulated on social media earlier this year suggested Nick Cave had been spotted at a popular Brighton cinema ordering a glass of wine to take into his screening of Downton Abbey: A New Era. I can well believe that alcohol would be essential for fullest enjoyment of Downton Abbey: A New Era. What I struggle to believe is that Nick Cave would be heading in to see Downton Abbey: A New Era. I prefer to believe Nick Cave bought a ticket for Downton Abbey: A New Era to maintain a facade of respectability and then slipped into an adjacent screen, wine still very much in hand, to enjoy Benedetta instead. (Although this is to assume that Nick Cave gives two hoots about what anybody else thinks of him.) At any rate, apocryphal or not, the story confirms a general feeling that Cave has been keeping up-to-date with developments in the visual arts. Filmed in 2021 as the UK emerged from lockdown, the latest Cave doc This Much I Know To Be True serves as a companion piece not just to 2016's One More Time with Feeling (the director is again Cave's compatriot Andrew Dominik, keeping himself busy while waiting for Netflix to get back to him on his Marilyn Monroe biopic), but to 2014's excellent 20,000 Days on Earth and, indeed, to Cave's earlier collaborations with the director John Hillcoat (1988's Ghosts... of the Civil Dead, 2005's The Proposition), each new project an update on an artist's life, work and thinking, some further indication of where Cave is now at. From angry young punk to middle-aged family man and unlikely agony uncle: it's been quite the trajectory, and someday someone might stitch elements of all these projects together into a single, career-spanning tapestry or tribute. (They could call it Manhood.)
True opens with a chapter you initially take to be false, or just some joshing around to warm up the cameras: Cave telling Dominik he's following Government advice - an automatically comical notion for British viewers - and retraining as a ceramicist, what with touring no longer being as practical or profitable as it was. Yet as the sequence progresses - with Cave talking us through eighteen pieces completed during lockdown, each figurine detailing a different stage of the Devil's misadventures here on Earth - you realise not only is there some truth in it, but that this truth bolsters what we already know about the film's subject: that Cave is a prolific, multimedia storyteller, and that his storytelling is almost always informed by a degree of hard-won personal experience. Elsewhere in the film, Dominik will himself appear on screen, brisk and bearded, hurrying everyone back to their marks or onto the next set-up. In this prologue, however, he pauses, altogether poignantly, to consider the significance and meaning of one of Cave's figurines, adorned with the stark title of Death Kills A Child.
Once we enter the church-like rehearsal space that serves as the documentary's primary location, your relationship to This Much I Know To Be True will largely be defined by your relationship to the kind of music Cave is now making: rich, sad, elegiac, ephemeral and evanescent in the way life itself can appear ephemeral and evanescent, and yet expansive beyond the boundaries of your typical pop song. The propulsive rage that drove The Birthday Party, Grinderman and early Bad Seeds recordings onto the fringes of the singles charts (and, I'll confess, rather scared off your correspondent in his younger days) has now largely burnt itself out; in its place, we find a quest for solace, consolation, harmony. This quest has been undertaken with the assistance of rogue Bad Seed Warren Ellis, seen here equipped with a fiddle and fiddling with the equipment, a wild-maned sidekick to his forever stoic and sombre liege. As Cave points out with characteristic dryness, the increasingly indispensable Ellis appears hellbent on replacing the other Bad Seeds one by one, and may even have his eyes set on the frontman gig: "He's singing a lot more, I've noticed."
Alternating between quivering croons and semi-strangulated howls, Cave's own vocals, and his free-associating, sometimes extemporised lyrics ("I am the Botticelli Venus with a penis", indeed), would seem ripe for parody. Except they're founded on a bedrock sincerity that meshes with the thoughtful, heartfelt responses we see Cave offering to fans' letters on his Red Hand Files blog; their wisdoms ("There's nothing wrong with loving something you can't hold in your hand") are hard to mock or flick off. When he goes full falsetto (or as close as a singing gravel-pit like Cave can get to falsetto) in the middle of one song, it naturally sounds absurd, until we understand that he's singing in character, and gently guiding us towards an extraordinary realisation: that, though it feels far worse, a child's death is no more or less tragic, in the cosmic scheme of things, than the death of anybody else ("Everybody's losing someone"). This is the thing with art, and this is what Dominik's film shows us: you take a gamble or two, see where it leads, and hope your audience follows you there.
That we notice is in part down to the film's stripped-back but supremely elegant presentation, which welcomes us into a muted space, adorned only with a few strobes that literally let light in on the darkness of both the creative process and the songs (and, on a practical level, presumably made it easier for the backing musicians to see their scores). This cloistered atmos connects True to yet another recent Cave document: Idiot Prayer, a self-directed record of a solo performance the singer gave at an empty Alexandra Palace as the UK first entered lockdown in early 2020. Now there are other people in the room, but only a select group; the mood remains intimate, the spectacle modest. (We're invited to peer in and share in the experience, but there's not so much of it that you could immerse yourself.) You start to wonder whether Cave really has abandoned touring for the foreseeable, because there's no way he could replicate this level of intimacy - an intimacy that feels wholly right for these songs - in a room stuffed with 2,000 sweaty gig-goers talking or holding up their phones.
And so Dominik's film redirects our gaze towards the much-fabled, still little-filmed process: towards sketches of songs, being firmed up before being released into the world, towards a performer of a certain sensibility, striving to give his music the desired depth and density of sound and thought. Does it need an extra microphone there, one more backing singer (with feeling)? Robbie Ryan's camera tracks, circles and scans in tandem with this experimentation and recalibration, yielding sequences that merit comparison to the studio scenes in the Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy, the Scott Walker doc 30 Century Man, and the PJ Harvey profile A Dog Called Money: valuable glimpses of how a musician comes to refine their work, and thus redefine themselves. In Cave's particular case, we have to weigh the sadness of his personal life against the tenacious triumph of his artistic life, and consider that a figure who came of age on the fly-by-night punk scene has enjoyed a career of remarkable longevity and integrity; that he has been able to make the music (and movies, and ceramics) he has always wanted to make without ever having to do adverts for dairy products or appearing on Strictly. If Nick Cave wants to enjoy Downton Abbey: A New Era with a nice glass of wine at the end of days like these, who are we to deny him?
I Know This Much to be True is currently streaming on MUBI.