Shrouded in grief and chilly to the core, Andrew Dominik’s mournful documentary “One More Time With Feeling” is at once sobering in tone and intoxicating in style. The intimate film follows singer Nick Cave in and out of the studio as lays down tracks for his upcoming album “Skeleton Tree,” doing so in the face of tremendous personal loss. Though it will undoubtedly hit fans the hardest, even those less familiar with the Australian rocker will find much to admire in this lyrical portrait of sorrow, creativity and perseverance, shot in luscious black and white 3D.
Cave commissioned the film himself, intending it to be his first, last and only public statement to support the release of his latest album, and it’s easy to understand why. In July 2015, Cave’s 15-year-old son Arthur died, falling off a cliff in the English town of Brighton. Arthur died before Cave and his band recorded the album, and you can palpably feel the heaviness of heart in the eight tracks played in the film. Understandably, the singer didn’t want to tap that raw nerve with every Tom, Dick and Harry doing press rounds, so instead he tapped friend and collaborator Andrew Dominik (Cave wrote the score to “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”) to wrangle some kind of promo doc-cum-earnest exploration, and to improvise it all on the fly.
Far from obviating the fact that much of it was winged on the day, Dominik opens with a long hotel room sequence where Cave and crew putter around, trying to figure out just what to shoot and complaining about the long the set-ups. “We never stop recording,” says one crewmember, even though “right now, nothing is happening.” Dominik then cuts to an interview with Bad Seed member Warren Ellis, where the musician recognizes that they’re going to have to address the six-ton elephant in the room. But for the hour that follows, the film never does.
The first half of the film is spent in the studio, and in taxis and rehearsal spaces and at the singer’s own house. One phenomenally crafted sequence finds Cave seated at his piano, waiting to record a vocal overdub. While the singer sits there, quiet and idle, the director adds a little overdub himself, subbing in snippets of thought and reflection Cave had recorded previously and sent over. Though 3D usually grants an expansive depth of field, here Dominik opts for the shallowest of focuses. Dominik’s close-up defines only the singer’s face, while the gear in the background and the sheets of music in the foreground a blur, and it creates an effect of startling intimacy — we’re not just in the room with Cave; we’re in his head.
Dominik intersperses these ruminative moments with live performance. He captures each of the album’s eight songs in richly choreographed sequences, which, going forward, will double as music videos. One track has Cave singing the chorus “this song/it spins/it spins/it spins” and so too does the camera, set on a 360 degree dolly encircling the group. In a technical feat reminiscent of David Fincher’s “Panic Room,” the camera then spins out of the room, through keyholes and stairwells throughout the building and out into the street.
Were it just for such sequences, and for Benoit Debie’s stunning compositions, “One More Time With Feeling” would still be a worthwhile film, albeit one with an audience fairly limited to Bad Seeds aficionados and fans of coal and ash cinematography (honestly, there’s gotta a lot of overlap between the two). But it has something deeper on its mind — that damned elephant in room.
Structurally, Dominik teases out the grief as the film goes on. First no one mentions it all, but slowly they begin to allude to it, with Cave mentioning “the trauma” when discusses his change in songwriting, and his wife Susie Bick referring to “everything that happened” when discussing her fashion line. Once alluded to, once that idea’s there, it stays, it nags, it grows, even if talking and thinking and doing something else. Cave refers to his grief as elastic, that you can keep on moving farther, but end up snapped back to the same spot, which exactly the structure the film. And so unable to talk about anything else, “One More Time With Feeling” ends with Cave’s shattering interview about his son and his pain.
“It’s too big to comprehend,” says Cave towards the end, “you search to get your head around it, to create a narrative for it.” Which, of course, is exactly what this unrelentingly self-reflexive film is about. There are so many shots of crewmembers setting up shots, and sequences where Dominik reveals himself filmed by somebody else while filming them, and they take on much deeper meaning when the bereaved reveal their own need for narrative, their need to construct and create in order to see themselves in new ways. Like his camera circling the song about circles, Dominik is working a sneaky mix form and content here, creating a film about the need to create in the face of tragedy.
“One More Time With Feeling” debuted at the Venice Film Festival.