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The Humanity in Grief: Nick Cave’s Personal and Powerful “One More Time with Feeling”

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By Deanna Radford

The saying “play it one more time, but with feeling,” reverberates throughout show business history. One rather pertinent example is in Harry Kurnitz’s play Once More, with Feeling! It ran on Broadway in the late 1950s and was made into a film starring Yule Brenner and Kay Kendall in 1960. In popular music, it appears in high lonesome country tunes by Willie Nelson and Jerry Lee Lewis and the call to do things over rings similarly in ballads and bangers by Regina Spektor and Daft Punk, respectively. The examples are innumerable. At the heart of all these songs and performances is the connection to heartache and the human condition. The saying manages to side-step cliché because of its emotional weight.

Enter One More Time with Feeling by director Andrew Dominik: the music documentary on Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ difficult yet creatively boundless year. It emerged from a catastrophic personal tragedy of Nick Cave’s and it shimmers with shadow and light, grief and music, with a depth of emotion that eclipses all the above examples with which this film shares a namesake.

Here’s a mere yet mighty glimpse.

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On the film and album

The film, released worldwide in September 2016, and returning to theaters for short stints in December, is based on the Bad Seeds sixteenth studio album, Skeleton Tree. It was recorded at studios in Brighton and France and was mixed in London. The album was in the making when Cave’s fifteen-year-old son Arthur died suddenly. The resulting film was made six months after his passing and is part making-of and part performance documentary. It’s completed with interviews with of Cave, to a lesser extent his partner, Susi Bick, and bandmate Warren Ellis. On occasion, Cave narrates his thoughts in poetic fashion. Dominik and a small crew shot the film in black and white for 2D and 3D over ten days.

The film is simultaneously raw and refined, both aesthetically and emotionally, and these elements intertwine throughout the movie. Parts of One More Time with Feeling share deliberately placed moments of proverbial nakedness. The movie begins with the camera rolling, fly-on-the-wall style, in a dressing room. “Is the camera rolling?” Cave asks from outside of the room, as he and others button their shirts and don jackets. The room is small and bright with mirrors and windows that automatically evoke spaciousness.

At the same time, the film is adorned with gorgeous black and white shots of the beach in Brighton, nighttime aerial shots of a big city, and gorgeous cityscapes with brick and birds all around. The world is never at rest.

This is true within people as well. Cave comments that, “We don’t want to change. We just want modifications. We hope to do better. But what if something catastrophic happens? What happens if you’re a difficult person?”

Despite the inner noise, scenes close up and personal are suffused with quiet. Moments with Cave and his family are candid and tender: He welcomes Bick and their son Earl into the studio. He casually admonishes Bick for wearing a fur jacket on-camera. Earl is given a camera of his own to shoot with. The family visits and talks quietly about the film. Dominik is shown as present but as a secondary subject along with the film crew recording the moments. Dominik interviews Cave and Ellis in the back of a cab on the move. The tone that is set feels immediately intimate and fragile.

35 minutes within the film are of the Bad Seeds performing Skeleton Tree in studio. We meet the band as they arrive and commune with their instruments. There are moments when Ellis conducts a duo of string players, plays a MicroKorg synthesizer and his violin. There are close-up and mid-range views of the band performing. The wider views of the performance show the film crew at work moving upon a circular track around the band. Objects within the film are modular, luminous, and contrast dark and light. The top of the grand piano where Cave sits is shiny and reflective; his visage within is a mise-en-abyme. The studio as performance space is illuminated with slowly flickering strobes and is atmospheric as the Bad Seeds perform Skeleton Tree. The album sounds expansive as the sky. Musically, it’s the logical follow up from their last album, Push the Sky Away.

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Lyrically, the album is populated with the stories of many. They are mythic and ordinary in proportion and they stand strongly as such. Cave has always been a master storyteller and lyricist. Yet, on Skeleton Tree and in One More Time with Feeling, his voice, strong as ever, conveys a bare emotional resonance. Cave’s voice alone speaks volumes.

Cave and Bick’s home in Brighton is another atmospheric location in the film. The floors and walls are light and bright with tall windows. As the film progresses, longer stretches of interview time are shown here. We hear directly from Bick and about her work as artist and clothing designer. We learn about their relationship. Cave talks about the facets of grieving.

The changing tides of music distribution

Dominik explained in an interview with Indiewire that Cave bankrolled One More Time with Feeling so he wouldn’t have to engage about his personal life. He had hoped the film would break even. The Bad Seeds have been releasing albums independently on their imprint Bad Seed Inc. since Push the Sky Away came out in 2012. While musicians of all kinds have worked independently for decades, this model, by a major artist signals a tide-change in the era of contemporary digital culture and distribution and publishing of music and film. In his book How Music Works, David Byrne writes:

The fact that Radiohead left EMI not so long ago and debuted its 2007 album In Rainbows online, and that Madonna defected from Warner Bros. to sign with Live Nation, a concert promoter, are said to signal the end of the music business as we know it. Actually these are just two examples of how musicians are increasingly able to work outside the traditional label relationship. There is no single way of doing business these days.

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds have smartly maintained a presence over the years and tour regularly, enabling them to connect and reconnect with audiences. While this film obviously does this as well, and emerges from a time of grief, it does so sensitively. It grapples with the notion of where to find words from trauma and how to make sense of it all. In the same interview with Dominik in Indiewire, he explains that Cave, Bick, and Dominik were mindful of not wanting to exploit personal tragedy for the sake of the film. Cave and Dominik struck a deal with this in mind. Dominik could film what he wanted and Cave could choose which pieces to leave out. The collection of scenes within the film was carefully chosen and Dominik and Cave knew just how much light and darkness to allow into both the lens, and the narrative.

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The human voice echoes over time

In Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, he and a crew explore some of the world’s most ancient cave paintings in Chauvet Cave in France. Prior to entering the cave, Herzog wonders if he’ll be able to understand the artwork by people from 32,000 years ago. And well, spoiler alert, he does. There’s an image on the cave wall that reminds Herzog of a silhouette of Charlie Chaplin dancing, and in this image lies the eternal language of art — a connection to the human heart and imagination.

With the expression and exploration of grief by Cave in this film, it is like a form of repetition. When we repeat these things and share them, we are closer to our own humanity and that of others.

Let’s face it, this year has been filled with grief, for music fans especially. Like the cave paintings, like Herzog’s vision of Charlie Chaplin’s silhouette, and Nick Cave’s voice spoken and sung in One More Time with Feeling and on Skeleton Tree, we too sing these expressions again around a perpetual human fire into eternity.

One More Time with Feeling is returning to independent theaters around North America for a one-day event on December 1st, and will again be screening sporadically throughout December. Visit the film’s website for showtimes in your area.

Photo by Dallas Curow
Photo by Dallas Curow

Deanna Radford is a writer and poet. She has a long history of working in music related undertakings, some of which include: collective member of G7 Welcoming Committee Records; executive director of GroundSwell new music series; collaborating organizer, programmer and director of send + receive: a festival of sound; and co-founder of shibui_oto: [subtlety in sound] a sound art presentation collective. She has written for MUTEKmag, Musicworks magazine, and many others. She lives in Montréal. 

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