Singer-songwriter Nick Cave gives his all in a one-man concert, a soaring performance in a cavern of silence
M, 118 minutes
Review by © Jane Freebury
One man, one voice, a solo piano in the middle of a vast, empty space is the last word in simplicity. It might herald a new era for the performance of music in these times of Covid too.
Nick Cave Alone at Alexandra Palace was originally sold as a one-off digital event, screened live in July this year to a ticketed virtual audience. Now called Idiot Prayer, the concert recording has become a movie, shifting from virtual gig to cinema. It certainly passes muster as an immersive and compelling audio-visual experience.
shifts between intimate gesture and soaring performance
In essence it is Cave’s performance, unaccompanied, of a selection of some of the best ballads from his repertoire. The one-man concert over nearly two hours shifts between intimate gesture and soaring performance.
Without introduction he walks into frame. A distinctive lanky figure in a Gucci suit, making his way through London’s Alexandra Palace. Along silent hallways and down empty stairs, to a waiting grand piano.
Not one footfall can be heard on this short journey but on the soundtrack we listen to the spoken lyrics of Spinning Song. It was released with The Bad Seeds last year on the album Ghosteen, their 17th studio album.
The remaining 21 songs for this two-hour set are performed in Cave’s familiar baritone voice, accompanied by his lush piano. They catalogue a lifetime of emotions. Love and pain, despair and regret, anger and jubilation, and everything in between.
For me, someone with only a casual acquaintance with Cave’s work, the concert is an overview of his creative range. Fans who know his work inside out may encounter something fresh or at least rarely heard. Euthanasia and the titular Idiot Prayer, get a live debut.
Naturally enough, I have got to know the ‘prince of darkness’ through the movies.
He wrote the screenplay for John Hillcoat’s The Proposition, a dark Australian western set in the outback that I admired a lot. Cave and his frequent collaborator Warren Ellis, composed the haunting soundtrack, as they did subsequently for Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.
Cave had a cameo performance in The Assassination of Jesse James as a balladeer performing in a saloon. And he was also in the cast and one of the co-writers of Hillcoat’s first notable feature, a tough prison drama, Ghosts…of the Civil Dead, released back in the bicentennial year, 1988.
But it was in 20,000 Days of Earth that I enjoyed Cave the most. He was playing himself in a scripted documentary about someone called Nick Cave who had reached the 55 year/20,000 day milestone.
to show is not necessarily to reveal, and the most interesting artistic personalities are full of contradiction
Made some time before the tragic death of his 14-year-old son, it reveals an intensely private artist with a deep need to connect nonetheless with fans. To show is not necessarily to reveal. The most interesting artistic personalities are full of contradictions.
Cave cuts a solitary figure in the frame throughout Idiot Prayer. The fourth wall is broken briefly with a high-angle shot that captures a cameraman nearby, but he is gone in the next frame from the same angle, slipped out of sight.
It’s a deliberate insert, of course. Probably a playful reminder that Nick did have company during the shoot. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan, recently nominated for an Oscar for his work on The Favourite, was there of course, moving his cameras around from front and side to back and crane above, and back again.
Cave doesn’t speak a word throughout, preferring to let his music speak for him. There is a little laugh after ‘… (Are you) The one that I’ve been waiting for?’ A private joke?
Into My Arms, after all these years still a favourite track of mine, is performed around midway. Cave has nominated it as one of the songs he is most proud of having written, but it is given no special treatment here. Far From Me, Black Hair and a number of other songs from the album some regard as his best, The Boatman’s Call, from 2011, also feature.
Idiot Prayer is a solemn affair, but rewarding and moving. A performer without the goods as a singer-songwriter could not possibly stay the course, holding the audience over two hours with so little else going on. Pared-down, Cave shows he has talent in spades.
First published in the Canberra Times on 6 November 2020