Never the most willing participant in the perceived interfering tedium and banality of the rock and roll media circus at the best of times, Nick Cave baulked at the thought of having to suffer the indignities of the endless parade of intrusive interviews required to promote his latest release, Skeleton Tree. Instead he commissioned fellow antipodean, Andrew Dominik (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Chopper) to create a platform on which and under his terms, to present and discuss the album, and in turn the terrible tragedy central to it, the death of his 15 year old son, Arthur, which occurred during the album’s recording.
The resulting documentary, One More Time With Feeling, is a unique and largely unguarded insight into Cave’s creative process and his struggle, as both an artist and father, to make sense of the most cataclysmic of events.
From an artistic point of view the film offers a mesmerising glimpse into Cave’s songwriting and recording process as he, with his by now insuperable partner in crime, Warren Ellis, work together as they discuss, setup and then play the quasi improvised opening track of both the album and the movie, the achingly poignant, ‘Jesus Alone’.
We watch as musicians take to their various stations and booths in London’s AIR Studios. They make final adjustments to their setups and run through their various warmups. The song begins with the buzzsaw menace of an effect pedal driven dirge over which Ellis coaxes high pitched bird-calls from his fiddle as Cave, his voice uncharacteristically weak and vulnerable intones: “You fell from the sky, crash-landed in a field near the River Adur”.
The effect on the viewer is akin to feeling the stomach lurch as if the floor was taken out from under. A cold wave washes over, we shudder as if someone has walked over our grave. Through Cave’s aching vocal we catch the sliver of a glimpse of the horror and destruction visited upon his house. No punches will be pulled, no sugar coated placebos will be handed out to the audience, this is about as raw an examination of grief as you’re likely to see.
As the film progresses it cuts between interviews, performance and reflective narration as Cave’s disembodied voice reflects and ruminates over life and death and what, if anything, lies in between.
At times the experience borders on becoming uncomfortably intrusive but overall Dominik strikes the right balance without becoming mawkish or overly sentimental. There are a few lighter moments and scenes of what must for now pass as normality in Cave’s family home, thrown in to provide some relief against the prevailing darkness.
Viewing One More Time With Feeling with a critical eye, you could argue that it is, coming in on just shy of the two hour mark, a tad too long and could do with losing twenty minutes. Also, some of the shots, for example where the camera leads us across the studio floor, though the building’s roof and into the firmament, like an ethereal eavesdropper (is this supposed to represent Arthur’s presence?), are bordering on the overly sentimental.
But any attempts to objectively view the documentary with cold detachment are sabotaged when the sight of something as seemingly innocuous and everyday, such as an old, and now disused pair of teenager’s sneakers, neatly waiting in the family hallway, will cause you to catch your breath as the realisation of the magnitude of the family’s loss returns.
One More Time With Feeling is a moving and exquisite film to be experienced rather than enjoyed. The largely black and white cinematography has a stark, almost clinical beauty for which light and shade act as a fitting accompaniment to the fragile and haunting lament of the music. And while viewing it may seem, on the outset like an act of endurance, it is ultimately a rewarding one.
Out of tragedy a terrible beauty is born and upon the random chaos of existence we can reflect. It may sound like scant reward but it’s all the consolation that Cave, and by extension, ourselves are offered.
There is no redemptive ending to the movie or to life in Cave’s realigned worldview. There are no happily ever afters, no riding off into the sunset, just the unavoidable fade to black and the overwhelming hospitable inevitability of the cold, consciousless cosmos that we happen to inhabit.
“No worst there is none” warned Hopkins in his Terrible Sonnets and after engaging in this captivating cinematic experience we cant help but be drawn to the same inescapable conclusion. One More Time With Feeling is essential viewing for fans of Cave and more importantly, for those of us afflicted with the human condition.