Troubadour punk Nick Cave plays tracks from his albums “Ghosteen” and “Carnage” amid slivers of creative and philosophical insight.
Two cameras orbit a grand piano on a circular track. Sometimes one will catch sight of the other, passing behind the black-haired singer at the keyboard, flashing between the session violinists or gliding beyond the bearded man crouched low over his synthesizer. Though this visible stagecraft draws attention to the fabrication — stage lights pop; grips wander through, adjusting the wiring — somehow the effect of Andrew Dominik’s “This Much I Know to Be True” is floaty, disembodied, hypnotic. Illuminating tracks from the superb 2019 Bad Seeds album “Ghosteen” and Cave’s 2021 collaboration with Warren Ellis, “Carnage,” this remarkable performance documentary may be for the Nick Cave-curious exclusively, but for them (us) it is close to essential.
In a ballroom clad in crumbling plasterwork (actually a disused Bristol factory space) Dominik stages the musical sections that make up most of the film, each one a bouquet of barbed wire, sung by Cave — with his ever-witchy charisma — like it’s the last song anyone will ever hear. In between are occasional off-the-cuff interviews, as we have come to expect from previous Cave documentaries. This time, however, there is a primary focus on performance not seen in Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard’s 2014 “20,000 Days on Earth,” a heightened docu-fictional account of one day in Cave’s life.
And this time there is less interiority than in 2016’s eviscerating “One More Time With Feeling” — also directed by Dominik — which is, if anything, a relief. That entirely sui generis 3D doc was made within and about the maelstrom of shock that followed the death of Cave’s 15-year-old son Arthur. Not only is it impossible to imagine Cave replicating the raw vulnerability that birthed that shatteringly beautiful and generous film about grief, but it’s impossible, having seen it, to want him to. “This Much I Know to Be True” is calmer, more controlled and removed — there is no Cave voice-over, for one thing — and if that makes it a less extraordinary film than Dominik’s first doc about the performer, well, we might not be able to bear it if it weren’t.
That’s not to say it’s a standard-issue concert film. From the start Cave’s peculiarly insightful way of talking about his art is in evidence, as he guides us around the small workshop he’s turned into a ceramics studio. At first his figurines seem whimsical and kitsch, but then he describes a series he’s developing, and his familiar motifs of damnation and redemption resurface. The devil, a figure with whom Cave clearly identifies, is shown at various stages of his life, finally — in a shot that Dominik discreetly lets hover a moment before cutting — curled at the feet of a child, seeking forgiveness.
Elsewhere the tone can be more bantering, especially during the often acerbic interludes that demonstrate the spiky energy between Cave and Ellis, a prickly love born of decades of close friendship and fertile creative conflict. Dominik asks Cave how Ellis came to be such a central collaborator, within the Bad Seeds and without. “He took a subordinate role and slowly, one by one, took out each member of the Bad Seeds,” deadpans Cave. “I’m the next to go. He’s singing a lot more, I’ve noticed.”
Marianne Faithfull shows up to contribute a spoken-word backwash to one of the tracks and, imperious despite her oxygen tube, is horrified on Ellis’ behalf when she hears him being called “Woz.” Cave relates with self-deprecating glee the time he’d been complaining about the filming process to his son Earl, only to be told to “stop being such a pussy.” These lighter moments counterpoint Cave on more reflective form, as when he speaks about his blog “The Red Hand Files,” and how answering readers’ questions keeps him “at the better end of [his] nature.” Most germane to the more restrained form this film takes, there’s his declaration that he no longer defines himself through his occupation. This is Cave as a “husband, father, friend, citizen” first, and a musician thereafter.
Still, in the music itself he is fully invested. In much the same way that Dominik lets the ragged edges of the moviemaking show, only for such deconstruction to be forgotten the instant Robbie Ryan’s camera takes off on one of its floating arcs, Cave can expose the cogs and crankshafts of his creative process without lessening the lovely, sometimes transcendent effect of the music. “It’s a long way to find peace of mind,” goes the repeated, tenebrous refrain of “Hollywood,” one of the film’s standout tracks. “This Much I Know to Be True” feels like a report delivered from some brief stop on that ongoing journey, in songs made of grandeur and grief and a strange sort of gratitude at the prospect of learning to live in grace with all these ghosts.