This Much I Know to Be True review – Nick Cave and Warren Ellis on transcendent form | Music documentary

There is something inherently cinematic about the work of Australian musicians and composers Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. The pair have collaborated on a string of scores for films, ranging from John Hillcoat’s 2005 antipodean western The Proposition (for which Cave also wrote the script) to the forthcoming Blonde, director Andrew Dominik’s adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’s historical fiction novel about “the inner life of Marilyn Monroe”. Yet even away from the movie theatre, Ellis and Cave’s compositions have a widescreen sweep, conjuring intimate aural landscapes of love and death – religion and fairytale intertwined. These are musical parables of grief and redemption, echoing Cave’s belief that “we all live our lives dangerously, in a state of jeopardy, at the edge of calamity”.

In his 2016 film One More Time With Feeling, Dominik (with whom the pair had worked on the underrated masterpiece The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) documented the creative process behind the Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds album Skeleton Tree, a record forged in the wake of a terrible family tragedy. Now, Dominik turns his attention to a new chapter in Cave and Ellis’s musical saga, as they prepare songs from the albums Ghosteen and Carnage before a 2021 tour.

Shot without an audience, in cavernous, church-like venues in Brighton and London where white lights illuminate pools of darkness visible, the performances are utterly engrossing, captured on hypnotically spiralling cameras by the Irish cinematographer Robbie Ryan. The atmosphere is stripped down and austere, allowing the songs to speak for themselves as they transport us from this world to the next.

With trademark wry humour, Dominik’s film opens with Cave declaring that, during lockdown, he took the opportunity to retrain (against his manager’s advice) as a ceramicist. The fruits of his labour include a series of figurines telling the pathos-laden story of the devil; from birth, through war, to damnation and remorse. Later, Cave reveals that while he would once have described himself as a musician and writer, now he is striving to shed those labels in favour of being a husband, father, friend and citizen.

He is also clearly a preacher, holding his fingers like a saint or a pope, while singing songs whose pulpit revelry is amplified by the gospel-style harmonies of his backing singers. There’s a touch of Vegas, too, about his trademark combination of suit and open-necked shirt – a familiar uniform that seems to imply the good, the bad and the ugly, all wrapped up in one seductively slender package.

Ellis is no less striking, a brooding Catweazle-like figure on keyboard and fiddle, part Merlin, part hillbilly – Paganini meets Alvin Stardust. Whether conducting like a musical Kafka or playing the flute in a cardie, Ellis cuts a thrillingly mystical figure, making it all the more delightful when guest performer Marianne Faithfull asks in disbelief: “Did he just call you Waz?” It’s a throwaway moment, but one that embodies the balance between the ecstatic and the everyday that this documentary captures so perfectly.

Conversations about Ellis and Cave’s disparate working methods are striking, with the latter insisting that Ellis is an agent of chaos who is always in “transmit” (rather than “receive”) mode, making it impossible to simply present him with anything as traditional as a “song”. “A whole lot of terrible shit happens when me and Warren get into a room,” Cave admits. “But there are these moments when it just… ” Ellis calls those moments “meditative”; Cave calls them “transcendent”.

“Behind it all – the music, the words, the suits, the grief, the tenderness and shame and guilt and joy – who are you?” asks someone on Cave’s website, The Red Hand Files. It’s a question that Dominik seeks not to answer but rather to reflect, trusting his audience to make up their own mind about one of the most innovative collaborations that the worlds of film and music currently have to offer.

In cinemas on Wednesday 11 May only; digital release to follow

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