What I know to be true, Sydney
How to make a concert film when no concert can take place to film? Australian director Andrew Dominik (Chopper, Killing them softly) and his two subjects, Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, have the answer. How do you create a personal documentary that touches the heart of these Australian music icons when, whether stated or implied in their vibe, the two are hardly in love with recording their lives? Again See: Dominik’s New Cave and Ellis what i know to be true. Performances in empty cavernous British spaces fill the frames of the film but, thanks to stunning lighting, staging and lens, they look as dazzling as any IRL concert. The interludes between tracks are brief, intimate and revealing. The result: a phenomenal doco that is a portrait of expression, a reflection on exceptional collaboration and a rumination on existence, as well as a haunting piece of cinematic heaven, whether you’re a Cave and Ellis enthusiast, a new come or something in-between.
Dominik, Cave and Ellis initially teamed up when the latter duo scored the first The assassination of Jesse James by the coward Robert Ford. Later this year, when upcoming Marilyn Monroe biopic Blond comes out on screens, the same arrangement will provide its soundtrack. But in the middle is 2016 doco Once again with feeling and now what i know to be true, such a fascinating pair that the musical documentary genre has offered gifted viewers. First Factual Film Found Cave and Ellis Recording Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds Album skeleton tree, while Cave also grappled with the death of one of his sons. Here, his follow-up is shaped by early performances from Cave and Ellis’ latest albums – the 2019 release of Bad Seeds. Ghostand Cave and Ellis’ record in 2021 Carnage – plus the pandemic and the lingering effects of bereavement.
The chatter precedes the tunes to begin what i know to be true — talk, a revelation and a mini art exhibition, in fact. In front of the camera, Cave quips by saying that he has “reconverted as a ceramist, because it is no longer viable to be a musician, a touring artist”. He jokes about quitting music, of course, but is serious about his foray into porcelain. Dressed in a white coat, he guides the public through his studio, sharing a series he has dubbed The story of the devil in 18 figures. That would make a phenomenal title for one of his tracks, but it’s not. Individual nickname of a piece, The Devil’s Last Dance, also sounds like a song title. Unsurprisingly, Cave unfolds the same kind of stories while explaining his ceramics – about a character he has long fascinated him with, and about choices, family, loss, redemption and grief – as he always has. behind the mic.
This captivating introduction serves several purposes, from pointing out the English government’s patently ridiculous advice to artists during COVID-19 to setting the tone for the film. There has always been a haunting mix of ethereal, mysterious and dark in Cave’s music, and a sense of poetic preaching in his lyrics; his early thoughts here about the devil at various points in his life deserve the same description and make the film a type of spiritual experience. Fans of any star are guilty of viewing their hero’s work in this light. This is especially true of musicians, who naturally turn concert halls into shrines for their followers to worship their output. However, when what i know to be true focuses on Cave at his piano, or behind the mic, spotlights casting him in a hypnotic glow while bathing his surroundings in darkness, that feeling couldn’t be more blatant – and deserved.
what i know to be true takes its name from the lyrics of “Balcony Man” by Cave and Ellis, the last track of Carnage – their very first solo album together beyond their many film score collaborations – and questions belief, gratitude and acceptance. These same themes shimmer through the film, but largely by immersing viewers in the songs of Cave and Ellis rather than directly addressing this trio of notions. And what performances they are, stripped down and gloriously theatrical at the same time, with Dominik, cinematographer extraordinaire Robbie Ryan (go! Go on, Marriage story, The favourite) and lighting designer Chris Scott creating a compelling visual experience. Watching the circle of the camera, the light bulbs popping and fading, the shadows and shine making Cave’s distinctive face look like a spectacular work of art, it’s impossible not to surrender to the grip of the film. Layer on the great sounds of Cave and Ellis, backed by vocalists, a string quartet and a brief appearance by Marianne Faithfull, and it’s simply transcendent.
Faithfull also gets the funniest line in the movie: “Did he just call you Waz?”. Usually seen prowling around Cave as he sings – conducting, playing instruments and sometimes singing himself – Ellis explains Australia’s penchant for shortening words in this way, and also happily becomes the film’s scamp, a part he’s obviously enjoyed for decades with his long creative partner. While what i know to be true There’s no shortage of standout moments, including each time Cave and Ellis perform, Dominik and the couple’s separate but interspersed chats about their working relationship are a delightful highlight. Ellis is mischievously candid about his disdain for order. Cave is candid about the chaos happening between them in the studio. He is also interviewed in-game about Ellis’ growing influence; “he took on a menial role and slowly, one by one, eliminated each member of the Bad Seeds,” Caves notes. “I’m next to go. He sings a lot more, I noticed.”
There is tenderness and openness in these conversations; introspection, existential musings, bold insights and joy too, and just struggling to live each day as it comes. Movie buffs and music lovers have had no shortage of opportunities to see Cave in theaters lately – including 2014’s docudrama 20,000 days on Earth and film-concert 2020 Silly Prayer: Nick Cave Alone at Alexandra Palace – but there is a particular insight and emotion that vibrates through what i know to be true. Cave grabs him when he talks about his answers to his red hand files website and emails, where anyone can ask him anything. The questions he receives are profound and, advising him to force himself to consider them carefully and with empathy, so are his answers. He approaches them not as a star or a musician or a writer, but as a person, a husband, a father and a friend who does stuff, which is also how he now prefers to describe himself, he says. . As much as anything else – and this sublime, lively and powerful doco is many things – what i know to be true is a sincere ode to this truth.
Top image: Nick Cave Productions.