Everyone involved in the making of One More Time With Feeling seems to be keenly aware that the film might be a terrible idea. The movie, documenting the recording of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds' new album The Skeleton Tree, opens with band member Warren Ellis expressing concern to the director (Andrew Dominik) about whether it’s appropriate to openly discuss how the accidental death of Cave’s son Arthur has impacted the lives of his friend and their band. Dominik more than once voices his own uncertainty about the project during interviews with his subjects. Cave himself openly admits that his son’s death might have clouded his judgment with regard to saying yes to this project, and Cave’s wife Susie seems ready to flee from the cameras at any given moment.
But everyone involved in the making of One More Time With Feeling is an artist, and artists are often not only compelled to reveal truths about themselves, but equally compelled to follow a potentially disastrous idea to its end, solely to see what it might yield. What this particular idea yields is a somber, gentle snapshot of individuals living with a tragic loss - the quiet, matter-of-fact side of grief that we seldom see in film.
Dominik’s film finds Cave in the recording studio, attempting to make sense - and, just as often, resisting the urge to make sense - of the sudden and total perspective shift his son’s July 2015 death has afforded him. “Life is not a story,” Cave asserts early in the film. “It’s often one event piled on top of another event,” and the film takes this model quite literally. Footage of banal studio tinkering plays under Cave’s detached voiceover, sometimes reading poems or lyrics, sometimes musing more directly about his loss. Meaning stealthily arrives in the marriage of these elements, and often makes for a surprising emotional moment. Cave wanders around the studio, politely trying to resolve a technical issue, or to determine the location of his missing pen, as his voiceover ponders, “But isn’t it the missing things...and the lost things...that carry such mass...and such weight...and are as big as the universe?”
This is the film in a nutshell - gently avoiding talking about Cave’s tragedy until it suddenly is, at which point you recognize that of course it’s been talking about it the entire time. The film accurately presents grief as an invisible tenant that has moved in, and you can engage it or ignore it, but it’s always there, in every room of the house, carpooling with you to work, your new constant companion.
Mindful of this new companion, filmmaker and subject navigate one another gently and respectfully, and seem to spend as much time on the idea of making the film - Cave is first seen negotiating with Dominik over a retake of Cave getting dressed - as they do discussing “what happened” (Cave’s lost son is not mentioned by name for the first hour). The conversational tangents about the filmmaking process tie into the aforementioned uncertainty of its makers and subjects; it feels as if they’re compulsively questioning the endeavor the entire time. But it also quite accurately mirrors the grieving process. Something profoundly terrible has happened and it has changed you forever - Cave goes so far as to describe himself as a new person living in the same body - but at some point you still have to get dressed and go to work, no matter what the experience has done to you.
That unfamiliar space is where the film finds Cave - he’s built a wall around the “event”, as he calls it, and Dominik follows him as he tries to navigate the low-level hum that radiates outward from the tragedy and subtly colors everything outside that wall. In conversation with the director, Cave worries that the “event” has done irreparable damage to his creative process. That might be one way to look at it for a songwriter who earlier in the film voiced his disdain for songwriting as “diary.” But there’s no getting around how directly Cave’s tragedy has informed the songs of The Skeleton Tree, its lyrics overflowing with understandably obvious correlations to his real life. It’s as easy to spot the leakage when he’s addressing a character who “fell out of the sky” in “Jesus Alone,” as it is when he’s mourning a lost lover in “Girl In Amber” or “I Need You.” Collaborator Warren Ellis fills in nearly every track with a constant hum of dread, like a quiet electronic alarm signaling that something terrible has happened. It’s not a fun listen, but watching Cave and his band discover these songs in the studio, and watching Ellis step up as a kind of exorcist for his friend’s pain, is both chill- and tear-inducing.
One More Time With Feeling isn’t a leaden affair - at various points in the film Dominik’s 3D camera spirals around the studio space, through the human body, out through cracks in the walls, and into outer space. In the less flashy moments, the film's self-reflexive nature buoys the weighty subject matter. And that subject matter itself isn't as dire as one might think: more often than not, one is struck by what a strange display of grace and kindness the whole thing is. But the film’s most valuable contribution to cinema might be its rare honesty about real-life grief. It’s not about crying to the heavens, it’s not about conquering demons and triumphantly moving past your pain. It’s about being self-aware enough to recognize that when a tragedy changes you, that change might be permanent. And whether you’re a songwriter or a bricklayer, surviving a profound loss is about choosing to wake up every day and figuring out over and over how to live with the unknown person into which “the event” has turned you.