Sat in front of a computer, musician Nick Cave reads a few questions aloud. These are deeply existential musings sent in by people he has never met. A teenager reflects on how daunting it is to entertain the idea of parting with the anger that has been left from the death of his brother; somewhere else in the world, a man is left to rediscover himself after losing both his wife and his job. When there is nowhere else to go, people turn to Cave.
“The Red Hand Files literally keeps me on the better end of my nature,” the musician tells the camera, reflecting on the impact his famous newsletter has had on his demeanor. Director Andrew Dominik’s documentary “This Much I Know To Be True,” which premiered at the Berlinale Special strand of the Berlin International Film Festival, can be described by the very same words Cave employs to summarize his newsletter: “You can ask me anything. There will be no moderator. This will be between you and me. Let’s see what happens.”
Of course, this is not the first time the Australian filmmaker has closely captured this elusive creative onscreen, but if one enters this picture expecting the intimate melancholia of Dominik’s previous Cave portrayal — the magnificent and deeply vulnerable “One More Time With Feeling” — there is some disappointment to be had. The 2016 documentary, which initially set out to chronicle the recording of The Bad Seeds’ album Skeleton Tree, morphed into a much more complex and intimate journey after the accidental death of the singer’s 15-year-old son, Arthur. Most of the songs, written before the tragedy, remained untouched and yet seemed to beautifully encapsulate the excruciating pain of loss, the marriage between the harshness of the lyrics and the mournfulness of the melodies a poignant purging catalyst.
In “This Much I Know To Be True,” the unbearable funereal anguish that seeps through “One More Time With Feeling” gives way to a steady placidity. While the former sees Dominik frame intimate performances through angled nooks and crannies in experimental 3D greyscale, the latter is structured around a grandiose concert enacted by the leading man and longtime creative partner Warren Ellis, the duo commanding large ensembles of musicians as they perform songs from The Bad Seed’s latest two albums, Ghosteen and Carnage.
The performances take place in an imposing warehouse-turned-studio, where Oscar-nominated cinematographer Robbie Ryan creates a fully immersive concert experience, riding a dolly in a convoluted circular structure that encases Cave and Ellis. The pair is surrounded by an array of like-minded creatives in the shape of fellow performers, backing vocals, and the many film crew members, often allowed into the frame to further emphasize the communal process of creating and preserving this encounter.
The skillful hands that move through the piano keys are the same ones that now shape intrinsic works of art (“I took the government’s advice,” Cave says of retraining as a ceramicist during the pandemic). The towering lights, a spectacle of their own, work as if a living creature, absorbing and responding to every chord and hum, rhythmically exposing and obscuring as the musicians navigate anger and sadness and hope to the sense-numbing highs of synthesizers. When Cave’s soulful voice joins Ellis’ ethereal falsetto to perform “Bright Horses,” the space is drenched with rich natural light. “Oh, the train is coming, and I’m standing here to see. And it’s bringing my baby right back to me. Well, there are some things too hard to explain, but my baby’s coming home now.” The words, imbued with the denseness of grief, are made bigger, heavier, by the overwhelming abundance that encases them; the light, the space, the spiritual energy. In this impossibly beautiful moment, it is almost as if standing in a church, engulfed in an indescribable luminescence.
The interludes stitched through the sensory-feast of the central performance are few and far between but offer a moving glimpse into Cave’s newfound clarity. He walks Dominik through a series of sculptures titled “The Story of the Devil in 18 Figurines,” the camera lingering on the one titled “Devil sacrificing a child.” When commenting on the importance of happiness, the singer states, “the most important thing for me is to have a sense of meaning about things.” His hands, often brought up to his temples in frustration during the testimonials in “One More Time With Feeling,” are quieter here, more settled.
Those who have seen “One More Time With Feeling” will undoubtedly have a deeper appreciation for this follow-up companion piece, but — even for the ones unfamiliar with either Dominik’s or Cave’s work— “This Much I Know To Be True” still proves powerful even if consumed as a concert film alone. Its cinematic prowess is not only a reflection of the director’s technical expertise and his insight into capturing their soulful, elegiac music, but also a testament to the depth of the relationship built between subject and framer. [B]