This Much I Know to Be True
Directed by Andrew Dominik. UK, 2022, 105 minutes.
Screens at the Brattle Theatre on Wednesday, May 11th, at 8pm.
In a situation that’s very dudes rock if not totally bros before hos, Nick Cave and Andrew Dominik became friends because they dated the same woman. The renowned rock musician and front man for Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and the Killing Them Softly (2012) director first connected by chatting on the phone whenever Cave would call up this lady friend, who is also the mother of Dominik’s son—talking with Interview in 2016, the director recalled that “I didn’t really want to like him, because he was my girlfriend’s ex, but I couldn’t help it.” They eventually struck up a relationship of their own, one that’s left a mark on Dominik’s work going back to his debut feature.
That first movie, Chopper (2000), was scored by founding Bad Seeds member Mick Harvey, and features a song from Harvey and Cave’s first band The Birthday Party. Next Cave and his foremost musical collaborator Warren Ellis concocted the gorgeous, ghostly score for Dominik’s three-hour revisionist western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007). Then Dominik directed Cave in One More Time with Feeling (2016), a film made to provide a safe place for Cave to promote his album Skeleton Tree without needing to field questions about the recent death of his son. Now they’ve completed two more collaborations, both set for release in 2022: a second performance documentary, This Much I Know to Be True, and Blonde, Dominik’s much-rumored-about Netflix film adapted from the novel by Joyce Carol Oates, which Cave and Ellis have returned to score.
Revealed early this year as a “companion film” to One More Time with Feeling, This Much I Know to Be True comes off less than totally calculated. It feels like a film that was made, most of all, because it wouldn’t be particularly onerous to put together, and because it would create another space for collaboration between friends who share immense love for one another’s work. Though promoted as an intimate look at the creative process between Cave and Ellis, the reality is that the movie functions mostly as a beautifully staged concert film. From memory, I bet you can count on one hand the amount of times the film actually cuts away from musical numbers—all from Cave and Ellis’ two most recent albums, Ghosteen (2019) and Carnage (2021)—to let the artists speak about their work.
This underused feature was the aspect of the film I was most anticipating. Beyond his accomplished oeuvre across different mediums—such as ceramics, which This Much I Know to be True delightfully kicks off with—Nick Cave is a captivating, deeply thoughtful interview. Mesmerizing to listen to, he commands attention with a mythologized presence that reads both broken and bolstered. This is in part due to his appearance. If you’ve seen Cave before, you know he’s striking: Gaunt and gangly, the 64-year-old still dons a shock of slicked-back black hair, framed up by his thick black eyebrows and intense, low-browed mug. When he speaks, he’s measured and secure, if not always completely sure of himself. He is not overly humble, and his firmness occasionally wavers.
Yet beyond his visage, Cave’s way of speaking, thinking, and simply moving through the world is stirring. “The very nature of the world is meaningful,” he reflects on himself and his altered outlook on life, and his function as a person—rather than as an artist, or musician—within it. A sequence where he discusses his relationship to his blog, The Red Hand Files, makes it clear that Cave views it less like a typical Q&A and more like therapy between him and his fans. He is empathetic to his inquisitors, who often issue desperate queries entirely unrelated to Cave’s work, seeking profound life guidance from a man who they view as something of a spiritual guru. Cave explains he’s gotten better at resisting the urge to reply to these questions immediately. Instead, he takes a day or two to think his answers over. In this way, he feels that his blog allows him to stay more attuned to his better nature. Though unspoken, there are themes of change and adaptation suggested throughout This Much I Know to Be True. Specifically, how Cave has altered his relationship to his work, to his sense of self, and to other people—especially since One More Time with Feeling—and then also, how Cave and Ellis withstood a global pandemic to continue making art together.
Having recently seen Cave and Ellis in concert playing the same songs performed in This Much I Know to Be True, my opinion on the film is at least a little skewed. I had gone in hoping for something like One More Time with Feeling, with sporadic musical performances buoyed by intimate conversation and interviews. I was less interested in revisiting songs I’d seen done similarly at the King’s Theater in Brooklyn a few weeks ago, and more eager to hear about how Cave and Ellis had been coping during the height of the pandemic, and how it was for them recording new music and finding creativity and inspiration during a fraught time (the film opens with Cave explaining that it was not viable to be a touring artist anymore, a sentiment which has since obviously shifted). Still, there is much to be gained from the intimacy granted by the filmed production, as opposed to seeing it from a distance that renders Cave’s face as little more than an obscure speck. “White Elephant,” a part-spoken word number off of Carnage and the subdued album’s most raucous track, manages to be even more affecting on film than live. Dominik’s filmmaking creates an atmosphere that manages to contain the power of the music while allowing it to flourish.
But when judged as the relatively straightforward concert film it turns out to be, This Much I Know to Be True is one of the most spellbinding I’ve ever seen. The performances are both intimate and grandiose, akin to church sermons and just as sacred. Marianne Faithful, who suffered complications due to COVID-19 in 2020, makes a charming appearance performing a spoken word poem which plays backwards during the song “Galleon Ship,” razzing Warren for his nickname Woz and acting the diva she’s rightfully allowed to be. Having watched it at home from a screener copy for the sake of this review, I can only imagine how This Much I Know to be True is going to play in theaters. The ambient synth melodies should be allowed a special place in the Dolby room.
Dominik fashions a dolly track around the performing space to keep the camera occasionally circling, and the oft-used strobe lights are dazzling (but will definitely make this film a tough watch for those prone to seizures). Overall, the production values put into the performances have exponentially increased between One More Time with Feeling and This Much I Know to Be True. And Dominik clearly enjoys working with Cave—even if Cave isn’t the biggest fan of film production. At one point, Cave bemoans the filmmaking process while admitting he enjoys being a part of the films themselves. Still, any reticence Cave may hold towards being the subject of Dominik’s cinematic interest, or ire towards the objectively arduous nature of filmmaking, is hardly felt, given Cave is allowed to do one of the things he loves the most—performing music—for most of it.
Produced with the most money and resources possible, at the end of the day This Much I Know to Be True reads like a love letter from one friend to another, from Dominik to Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. Often times, the best art is made by friends who care deeply for one another. Cave and Ellis themselves are a testament to that, and so are Cave and Dominik. Working hand-in-hand, an artistic warmth radiates throughout their collaborative project. No longer a conduit for Cave’s grief, This Much I Know to Be True functions purely as testament to how love and art can weather the end of the world. [★★★★]