Tag Archives: documentary

20,000 Days on Earth

Beautifully Self Indulgent

Nick Cave apologies in advance for his messy desk. (image: sundance.org)

All the cool kids dig Nick Cave. Since I don’t sit at that table, I had no frame of reference when I walked into the theater. As a fan of music, however, I’m fascinated by the artistic process. I’m the guy who watches the Blu-Ray special features. I listen to director commentaries. I download demos from my favorite bands. The act of creating something out of nothing is magical to me. With 20,000 Days on Earth, directors Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard explore Nick Cave’s creative process and gives us a behind the eyes look into the life of a distinctive artist.

Before the screening, I did some due diligence and checked out a few Bad Seeds tunes on Spotify. What I found was a style heavy on mood and atmospherics. To my ears, it sounded like a mix between David Bowie and Lou Reed with a devil’s snarl. It’s perfect movie music and the overall soundtrack is impressive. Starting with a solo piano demo, growing with a studio recording and culminating in a monstrous stage show, it’s moving to watch Cave perform. Wonderful cinematography helps bring the doc to life, giving it a unique visual flair.

The flip side of all this investigation is a “look at me” vibe that may turn off all but the most ardent Cave fans. Peeling back the creative process is one thing, but long winded therapy sessions and contemplative car rides may only be interesting to die-hards. If there’s a fine line between honesty and being pompous, 20,000 Days on Earth edges on the side of self-importance. It also doesn’t help that the people who surround Cave, with the exception of his hippie, fuzzy faced guitar player, aren’t all that interesting. The occasional actor or singer pops in for a chat but they don’t add much to Cave’s story.

Despite its pitfalls, 20,000 Days on Earth is a worthy watch for general music lovers and a must see for devotes of the Bad Seeds. Despite his occasional peacocking, Nick Cave’s daring choice to bare his soul is to be commended. Even if I didn’t connect with him as a person, it doesn’t mean other people won’t. Recommended on the strength of the music alone, the first feature from directors Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard is an interesting and effective one.

Score: 8 out of 10

No No: A Dockumentary (2014)

A Solid Triple Down the Third Base Line

Dock Ellis leans into his windup in No No: A Dockumentary (image: sundance.org)

When Dock Ellis took the mound for the Pittsburgh Pirates on June 12th, 1970, he was high as a kite. Hopped up on acid and reeling from the night before, reports say he could barely see the plate. He then went on to pitch a no hitter. Long considered a controversial yet talented player, No No: A Dockumentary peels back the media headlines to examine Dock as a flawed yet fascinating person. Thanks to a dedication to brutal honesty and some exceptional first hand account, director Jeff Radice’s first feature is compelling as it is entertaining.

No No documents the scope of Ellis’ life from a variety of interesting angles. From his initial baseball break to his work educating young players on the dangers of substance abuse, Ellis is far more interesting than the newspapers made him out to be. Told through the testimonies of his family, friends and archival interviews, Radice succeeds in piecing together a complete portrait of a singular personality.

Often documentaries are only as interesting as the people being interviewed. Luckily for Radice, Ellis’ life was filled with people as fun and exuberant as he was. From ex-teammates to close family friend, everyone delivers their stories with punch and flair. This gives the doc energy, important when the archival footage gets reused at an alarming rate. Not a huge problem given the time period but after the sixth shot of Ellis chomping gum on the mound, the repetition becomes noticeable. Ellis’ revolutionary approaches to the media, his fight for equal rights and his late life social work are all thoroughly explored.

But it’s not all good times and wacky hair styles. No No balances the good about Ellis with some of his most brutal bad. First-hand accounts of domestic abuse and the consequences of a life spent partying are examined with painful honesty. The testimonies of ex-wives recounting their ugliest incidents are shocking. Not only are they tough to listen to, the women telling the tales brim with bravery in the face of personal turmoil.

While it’s more of a consequence of the polarizing subject, there is a minor issue of mixed message. When going through the drug addled moments of his baseball career, there’s a light, carefree tone but when we get to his late life social work, the vibe become preachy. There’s also a solid amount of filler as the doc takes detours to talk about rampant use of performance enhancing “greenies” and the Pirates’ run to the 1971 World Series. It all serves to explain why Ellis was who he was but the tangents stray too far from the central story.

Dock Ellis was more than a pop culture oddity. He was a singular personality who allowed himself to be himself. With flashy cars, bright clothing and a comically intense “screw you” attitude, Ellis was an agent of change for a league desperate to break the chains of segregation. The man wasn’t perfect or even very likable but thanks to No No: A Dockumentary, we witness the positive effects he had on the people around him, even when he was at his lowest. A documentary of careful insight into a fascinating figure.

Score: 8 out of 10