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This Much I Know to Be True

Celebrating the creative partnership between Nick Cave and Warren Ellis is a transcendent experience in this phenomenal music documentary.
By Sarah Ward
May 11, 2022
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By Sarah Ward
May 11, 2022
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How do you make a concert film when no concerts can be held to film? Australian director Andrew Dominik (Chopper, Killing Them Softly) and his now two-time subjects Nick Cave and Warren Ellis have the answer. How do you create a personal documentary that cuts to the heart of these Aussie music icons when, whether stated or implied in their vibe, both are hardly enamoured with having their lives recorded? Again, see: Dominik's new Cave and Ellis-focused This Much I Know to Be True. Performances in cavernous empty British spaces fill the movie's frames but, via stunning lighting, staging and lensing, they're as dazzling as any IRL gig. The interludes between tunes are brief, and also intimate and revealing. The result: a phenomenal doco that's a portrait of expression, a musing on an exceptional collaboration and a rumination upon existence, as well as a piece of haunting cinematic heaven whether you're an existing Cave and Ellis devotee, a newcomer or something in-between.

Dominik, Cave and Ellis initially teamed up when the latter duo scored the former's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Later this year, when upcoming Marilyn Monroe biopic Blonde hits screens, the same arrangement will provide its soundtrack. But in the middle sits 2016 doco One More Time with Feeling and now This Much I Know to Be True, as entrancing a pair as the music documentary genre has gifted viewers. The first factual flick found Cave and Ellis recording the Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds album Skeleton Tree, as Cave also grappled with the death of one of his sons. Here, its follow-up is shaped by the first performances of Cave and Ellis' latest albums — the Bad Seeds 2019 release Ghosteen, and Cave and Ellis' 2021 record Carnage — plus the pandemic and the lingering effects of grief. 

Chatter precedes tunes to begin This Much I Know to Be True — talk, a revelation and a mini art exhibition, in fact. To the camera, Cave quips that he's "retrained as a ceramicist, because it's no longer viable to be a musician, a touring artist". He's joking about giving up music, of course, but serious about his foray into porcelain. Donning a white lab coat, he walks the audience through his workshop, sharing a series he's dubbed The Story of the Devil in 18 Figurines. That'd make a phenomenal title for one of his tracks, but it isn't. One piece's individual moniker, The Devil's Last Dance, also sounds like a song title. Unsurprisingly, Cave unfurls the same kinds of tales while explaining his ceramics — about a figure he's clearly long been fascinated with, and about choices, family, loss, redemption and mourning — as he always has behind the microphone.

This attention-grabbing introduction serves several purposes, from pointing out the English government's patently ridiculous advice to artists during COVID-19 to setting the film's tone. There's always been a bewitching blend of the ethereal, mysterious and dark to Cave's music, and a sense of poetic preaching to his lyrics; his early musings here about the devil at various moments in his life earn the same description, and establish the movie as a type of spiritual experience. Fans of any star are guilty of seeing their hero's work in that light. It's especially true of musicians, who innately turn concert venues into altars for their disciples to worship their output. Still, when This Much I Know to Be True hones in on Cave at his piano, or behind the mic, spotlights casting him in a hypnotic glow while bathing his surroundings in blackness, that feeling couldn't be more blatant — and earned.

This Much I Know to Be True takes its name from lyrics from Cave and Ellis' 'Balcony Man', the final track on Carnage — their first-ever solo record together beyond their many film-score collaborations — and ponders belief, gratitude and acceptance. Those same themes flicker through the movie, but largely while immersing viewers in Cave and Ellis' songs rather than addressing that trio of notions directly. And what performances they are, stripped back and gloriously theatrical at once, with Dominik, extraordinary cinematographer Robbie Ryan (C'mon C'mon, Marriage Story, The Favourite) and lighting designer Chris Scott crafting a mesmerising visual experience. Watching the camera circle, bulbs pop and dim, and shadows and shine make Cave's distinctive face look like a spectacular work of art, it's impossible not to surrender to the film's thrall. Layer in Cave and Ellis' grand sounds, as backed by singers, a string quartet and a brief appearance by Marianne Faithfull, and it's simply transcendent.

Faithfull also gets the film's funniest line: "did he just call you Waz?". Usually seen prowling around Cave as he croons — conducting, playing instruments and sometimes singing himself — Ellis explains Australia's fondness for shortening words in such a fashion, and also happily becomes the film's scamp, a part he's obviously enjoyed for decades with his long-standing creative partner. While This Much I Know to Be True isn't short on standout moments, including whenever Cave and Ellis perform, the separate but intercut discussions between Dominik and the pair about their working relationship is a delightful highlight. Ellis is mischievously candid about his disdain for order. Cave is frank about the chaos that happens between them in the studio. He's also a game interviewee about Ellis' growing influence; "he took a subordinate role and slowly, one by one, took out each member of the Bad Seeds," Caves notes. "I'm the next to go. He's singing a lot more, I've noticed."

There's tenderness and openness in these conversations; introspection, existential musings, bold self-insights and joy, too, and tussling with simply getting on with each day as it comes. Moviegoers and music aficionados alike haven't lacked chances to see Cave in cinemas recently — including in 2014 docudrama 20,000 Days on Earth and 2020 concert film Idiot Prayer: Nick Cave Alone at Alexandra Palace — but there's a particular perceptiveness and poignancy pulsating through This Much I Know to Be True. Cave captures it when he talks through his responses to his The Red Hand Files website and emails, where anyone can ask him anything. The questions he receives cut deep and, advising that he has to force himself to consider them carefully and with empathy, his answers do as well. He approaches them not as a star, musician or writer, but as a person, husband, father and friend who makes stuff, which is also how he now prefers to describe himself, he says. As much as anything else — and this sublime, vivid and potent doco is many things — This Much I Know to Be True is a heartfelt ode to that truth.

Top image: Nick Cave Productions.

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