Polished in all the ways its predecessor was rough, “This Much I Know to Be True,” Andrew Dominik’s second film about Nick Cave, offers nothing close to the acute emotional experience of his previous effort — and that’s the best news of all. In 2016, the rocker and the “Assassination of Jesse James” filmmaker teamed on “One More Time with Feeling,” an ash-toned music doc that followed the singer as he grieved an incomprehensible personal loss, resulting in a roundabout portrait of raw nerves and confusion that remains a high watermark of the genre. If grief underscored every moment of Dominik’s 2016 first Cave doc, for his follow-up he settled on showmanship, delivering a film that is a pleasure from beginning to end.
Unable to go on tour in early 2021 (guess the reason why), Cave re-teamed with Dominik to make big screen magic, setting up shop in an abandoned Bristol factory to record tracks from Cave’s most recent albums “Ghosteen,” with his band The Bad Seeds, and “Carnage,” with long-time collaborator Warren Ellis.
Elegant simplicity was the name of the game, as Dominik and DP Robbie Ryan built a circular dolly track, then placed Cave, Ellis, and the backing musicians within it.
Covering each number with two cameras revolving around the musicians and shooting them from two different aspect ratios, “This Much I Know to Be True” projects a beguiling degree of Zen self-confidence as it deploys the barest minimum of its prodigious technical skill to better spotlight the music. Alternately howling and sing-speaking with a tenor as deep and rich as an aged single malt, Cave’s voice makes the biggest impression of all.
After an early visit to Cave’s sculpture studio — the troubadour took the government’s advice to retrain to work from home, Cave explains in the film’s opening lines — Dominik’s cameras don’t leave the recording studio for the hour that follows, making “This Much I Know to Be True” into a rather intimate concert film. Indeed, intimacy is the key word here, as this film is built on a relationship that goes back more than 30 years, to a time in Melbourne of the 1980s when Cage and Dominik both dated the same girl (Dominik even married her). In this portrait of shared comfort and trust, Warren Ellis plays a major role, kibitzing with Dominik between set-ups and synching with Cave as fluidly as can be when the two performers start making music.
Clad in a suit jacket and a crisp, open collar white shirt, Cave’s get-up stands in marked contrast to Ellis’ feral-man-with-an-angel’s voice aesthetic, turning the collaborators into perfectly complementary screen foils. When they do get to work, bathed in a silver tone lighting scheme that changes with each song’s rhythms, they do so with mastery and precision, with the same spark Spike Lee traced in the sports doc “Kobe Doin’ Work,” that Michael Mann found in the underworld, and that millions of viewers worldwide tune in to the Winter Olympics hoping to witness: that thrill of seeing a top professional perform at the peak of their craft.
By no stretch of the imagination revolutionary, “This Much I Know to Be True” mostly offers the simple pleasures of good songwriting, performed by charismatic singers, captured elegantly onscreen. And that’s not nothing! However, come the one-hour mark, Dominik does work in more interview footage, revealing a film in many ways structured as a response to its predecessor.
If “One More Time with Feeling” turned around the quest for meaning in the face of tragedy, this follow-up checks back in with heartening news. Cave speaks about his advice site The Red Hand Files as a kind of “spiritual practice” and as we watch him tackle questions such as “Who will I be without my anger?” and “How does one handle having no control?” one can easily see why. Then, after two thumping performances of recent songs “Hand of God” and “White Elephant” — both staged for maximum catharsis as explosive, rock-and-roll revivals — Dominik cuts back to an interview where Cave explains that he has indeed found meaning again, telling us that he has discovered a new peace of mind by no longer seeing himself as a musician above all.
If Dominik neither wants nor makes “This Much I Know to Be True” too personal a document, he does slyly undercut his film’s formal polish by closing it with a more vulnerable reveal. Gently lifting the curtain on a man who has found brilliance in his work by de-emphasizing the its importance in his life, Cave begins the final interview describing his dissatisfactions with a recently shot sequence, revealing degrees of self-doubt and exhaustion, before Dominik cuts to the song in question. Of course, it is sublime.
“This Much I Know to Be True” premiered at the 2022 Berlin International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.