Nick Cave’s new live film, Idiot Prayer, is a stark and bold showcase of his powers
Nick Cave walks through London’s stunning Alexandra Palace completely alone.
The venue’s emptiness is eerie as the camera tracks his journey to the stage, which is on the floor in the middle of the cavernous space.
A recording of him reciting ‘Spinning Song’, the opening song of last year’s Ghosteen, plays as he struts to his beautifully lit piano.
This first two and a half minutes is so stark and striking that you might not be adequately prepared for how it’s going to sound when he begins to play.
Spoiler: it sounds pretty damn great.
He launches into the film’s namesake ‘Idiot Prayer’ without much fuss and, across the next 90 minutes, proceeds to play stark solo renditions of songs from across his vast catalogue.
This is essentially it. On surface level, it’s a man and his songs, in a big old empty theatre. But the richness of Cave’s work, and the unique but simple concept of this film, offers plenty to think about.
Without spoiling too much, fans of his stunning 1997 record The Boatman’s Call will be thrilled with Cave’s setlist selections. Those expecting a dose of 2000’s No More Shall We Part will be less so.
Each song feels precious in one way or another; the waltz of ‘Nobody’s Baby Now’ is classic, catchy and actually kinda cute. Frenetic favourite ‘The Mercy Seat’ is performed with such visceral intensity that only those without a pulse won’t be moved (or frightened) by it.
Speaking of intensity, ‘Jubilee Street’ builds to such an immense crescendo that one wonders whether even a band as great as the Bad Seeds could invoke chills like this.
Fellow recent favourite ‘Higgs Boson Blues’ is becoming even stranger and richer as the years go on – definitely a good thing – while ‘Stranger Than Kindness’ is stripped of its discomforting arrangement, but loses nothing in this more digestible format.
He revisits Grinderman songs ‘Palaces of Montezuma’ and ‘Man In The Moon’, and reminds us that Ghosteen was yet another career highlight as songs like ‘Waiting For You’ easily stand up alongside more familiar fare.
There is just one new song, ‘Euthanasia’. A brief but engrossing ballad that is as exciting for its quality as its suggestion that Cave may soon be ready to release more music.
The prospect of staring at a man playing piano for 90 minutes mightn’t delight everyone. But the quality of the visual stimulus – a warm, changing light on Cave’s face, sheet music scattered at the feet of his stool, glistening shots of his grand piano – make up for the lack of quantity.
Cinematographer Robbie Ryan treated Cave’s performance with the kind of discernment it deserves. The occasional sweeping shot or intense close-up feel far more effective than the dizzying, choppy madness that other recent streamed shows have fallen victim to.
Cave doesn’t introduce any songs, he lets big, bold titles do that for him. He doesn’t address his audience, instead behaving as if he’s entirely alone.
It’s hard to separate this lonely figure Cave cuts from the current world climate.
In 2020, we’ve all used the word isolation more times than ever before, and it’s not a word you necessary want to exercise all that often.
One could read into this focused presentation of the performance countless ways.
Some may argue that it’s simply pretentious for a man and his songs to command so much time and so much space. To demand the entire spotlight. But anyone who considers it as such is probably not a Nick Cave fan, and would relish the chance to see their favourite artist make a film as intimate and beautiful as this.
The emptiness could symbolise the power of poetry in the face of solitude. The idea that words, music and art can offer comfort when no one or nothing else is.
It could be a purely visual decision. The sight of an empty theatre can arouse both sorrow and a kind of magical feeling; offering memories of what once was and the promise of what still could be.
Or maybe Nick Cave just liked the way his songs sounded at his solo shows and wanted it captured.
One thing is certain, Idiot Prayer is not a replication of the live concert experience. This feels like a film, not a gig.
With so many of us deeply missing communal musical gatherings, it’s fair to yearn for a realistic replication of a live show.
But perhaps we need to come to terms with the fact that no living room broadcast will compare to sitting in a theatre or standing in a pub, watching, hearing and feeling the magic of performance firsthand.
So, the fact that Idiot Prayer goes the other way – offering a more cinematic experience than a mere fly on the wall portrayal of an artist and their work – makes it a more engrossing property.
When Nick Cave finishes playing ‘Galleon Ship’, he pauses, stands, and walks towards the light. He is gone, all is quiet, the moment is over. We are alone.
Idiot Prayer is both a very simple and very ambitious film, and yet another triumph in a career already packed with them.
Idiot Prayer screens Thursday 23 July at 8pm AEST. More details here.