The few times that I’ve been to see National Theatre Live performances at the cinema in St Andrews have differed a lot from watching the same sort of screenings at home. Often the kind of reception that these showings on the screen get vary- sometimes the audience readily applaud at the end of each act, sometimes there is perfect, overawed silence. The newly-released filmed concert by Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds that screened at select cinemas worldwide on 12th April offered appealing possibilities in this regard- what’s the etiquette of a filmed gig? Should there be applause? Presumably different to watching a concert on a DVD?
Driving into Dundee on a drizzly Thursday evening, having re-listened to the Australian post-punk icon’s most recent recording with his ever-present band, Skeleton Tree (2016), much of which had seemed to pass me by eighteen months ago, this filmed gig was a pretty exciting concept, especially considering I was missing his headlining what looks to be a monumental weekend festival APE at Victoria Park, London at the beginning of June, the first of a huge summer for the ensemble.
The album’s background has been covered lots and in depth and not much more needs to be said about the death of Cave’s 15-year-old son Arthur, who fell from a cliff near the family home in Brighton whilst experimenting with LSD in the summer of 2015, given the majority of the album had been completed before and only minor adjustments were made by Cave and producer and band-mate Warren Ellis in the weeks after the tragedy.
This is the second film with Cave and the Bad Seeds as its subject since, with the acclaimed documentary One More Time with Feeling charting the weeks after the release and the first stages of touring. Focusing less on process than performance, Distant Sky, named after one of Skeleton Tree’s tracks, features the October 2017 concert that the Cave and his ensemble played at the Royal Arena in Copenhagen, one of the vast venues of this album’s stadium tour signalling precisely how far the man has come from the small Melbourne sets with The Birthday Party. Setting out to give its viewers an authentic experience of the concert, David Barnard, known for his collaborations with Radiohead and Björk among others, has stationed the cameras amid the audience at points, often panning out of the close-ups to show fans jumping and swaying from a distance, and, at times, providing a birds-eye view over the brimming auditorium.
From the intimate and abstract songs of Skeleton Tree to the signatures and favourites of the fifteen previous studio albums, this was the epitome of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. The gulf between reticence and recondite qualities of the his most recent song-writing and the aggressive narrative of yesteryear’s work was extraordinary to see- the avant-garde experimentalism of the last two albums in ‘Anthrocene’, ‘Jesus Alone’, ‘Magneto’ and ‘Higgs Boson Blues’ abruptly transfiguring into the punch and violence of early releases ‘From Her to Eternity’ and ‘Tupelo’. The seven-strong outfit played through the whole of the new release, the film periodically zooming in for intimate facial shots of each member at work. Cave himself, dressed in his habitual black suit and white shirt half-done up, began the evening’s proceedings sat down, gazing around the room as he took in an adoring audience and the sea of hands that followed him throughout the ensuing two and a half hours.
Often the older, gentler balladic classics like ‘The Ship Song’ and ‘Into My Arms’ lacked the triumphant and soaring transcendence of the album versions and live performances of decades ago, but that is no criticism. Cave and the Bad Seeds play a very different music now compared to their fondly-remembered nineties. The experimental nature of the distorted and synthetic soundscapes of ‘Girl in Amber’ and ‘I Need You’ seem to be the go-to for Cave and collaborator Ellis, who was the best of the rest on stage with the violin and on the piano and worth a whole documentary himself. What has become a truly potent partnership between the pair in the world of film with scores such as The Road and Hell or High Water seems to be just as effective in the studio, and the verve and fire with which they and their bandmates play shows the passion is clearly still there to match the artistry.
The guest appearance of classically-trained soprano Else Torp for the film’s title track with Ellis’ mesmeric violin solo was too much for Cave himself to bear, as he wiped his dampened eyes and began ‘Jubilee Street’. After a brief disappearance, out they came once more, the crowd enveloping Cave as he made his way into their midst for ‘Weeping Song’ before a barnstorming rendition of his Murder Ballads’ classic ‘Stagger Lee’, when heaving rows of the audience swarmed the stage and received a stirring finale in ‘Push The Sky Away’, and those left behind in the cinema stunned in silence. Brilliant beyond expectation, this was Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds as never heard before, masters of performance on screen and stage.