Distant Sky: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds Live – film review

Captured on stage in Copenhagen and in cinemas for one night only – Nick Cave's testament to the healing power of music

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★★★★★

When Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds announced their first arena tour, there were fears that playing the enormo-domes of the world would mean a retreat from their audience. A reticence to engage wouldn’t have been a surprise; during the recording of the band’s latest album, Skeleton Tree, one of Cave’s twin teenage sons fell to his death near the family home in Brighton.

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But any worries about the band distancing themselves from their fans proved to be unfounded. If anything, Cave made it his mission to bridge the gap more than ever before, as this concert filmed at Copenhagen’s Royal Arena shows.

Director David Barnard captures that night in October 2017 with a keen sense of the ticket-holder’s experience. There are no cut-away shots to nervous backstage preparations, only judiciously placed cameras on stage and about the auditorium, some rubbing shoulders with the audience themselves.

The sound, a bit echoey at first, also conveys the ambience of the hall, and doesn’t sound ripped from the mixing desk. Shouts from the crowd during inopportune moments haven’t been stifled, and drummer Thomas Wydler’s count-offs into the songs are audible. Far from transcending the film-concert format, this strives to be as perfect a facsimile as possible. And that’s the point: you almost feel like you were there.

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The Bad Seeds have never been ones to turn up, bash out the hits and leave. Their live shows are legendary, and have been well documented down the years on CD and DVD.

Here once again they prove they are masters of mood. You could hear a plectrum drop as Cave takes to the stage to Anthrocene – a song not exactable hummable even by Skeleton Tree’s brooding standards, but captivatingly delivered here. By contrast, From Her to Eternity (“Ah wanna tell ya ’bout a girl!”) from their 1984 debut is a punishing cacophony of noise. The audience find themselves bathed in crimson during the sinister Red Right Hand (aka the theme to TV’s Peaky Blinders), while a flickering monochrome film accompanies the tender Girl in Amber. Such subtle embellishments hardly scream arena spectacle, but then a Bad Seeds gig isn’t the place to come if you want pyrotechnics or a dazzling laser show.

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The songs they perform from their back catalogue are forever evolving. The Mercy Seat – the bedrock of their set for the past 30 years – opens as an acoustic lament, before the dials are turned up and the song and its death-row protagonist succumb to electrical overload. More recent fare such as Higgs Bosun Blues and Jubilee Street are given extended workouts, with the latter’s violent finale threatening to rip a stadium-size hole in the Danish capital. Through it all, the band plays with its customary swagger, looking like seven black-clad dudes of the apocalypse.

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There has always been a religious element to the Bad Seeds music. You can hear it in the apocalyptic, Old Testament fury of Tupelo, which Cave spits out here with his customary fire and brimstone, like an evangelical preacher twisted and contorted by a higher power. In comparison, the lilting, piano-led Into Your Arms speaks of love and acceptance – composed at a time when Cave found inspiration in the New Testament.

These songs of hell and hope are received with a keen devotion by Cave’s church of followers. Perched precariously on a narrow gangway, the singer allows himself to be engulfed in a sea of outstretched hands, each one straining to touch the hem of his suit. When the invitation goes out for the crowd to join the band on stage, the chosen ones are visibly in raptures – beaming back to their brethren.

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Cave can play the crowd like a pro, but it never feels like he’s simply going through the motions – not many frontmen would go walkabout through the crowd like the Aussie does during The Weeping Song. And there’s nothing fake or contrived about the emotion he shows during the song Distant Sky, when he’s joined by Danish soprano Else Torp. Her soothing, soaring voice and the yearning violin of Warren Ellis put tears in Cave’s eyes and make that rock-solid baritone waver just a little.

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After 18 songs and nearly two-and-a-half hours, the band and the audience are spent. Every soul in the auditorium tonight will have come here knowing of the loss Cave suffered in his life, and will have been willing him on. But what they might not have expected was the amount he was prepared to give back.

Push the Sky Away brings the show to a close, with Cave delivering the line, “People say it’s just rock ‘n’ roll, but it gets you right down to your soul”. Few having watched this mesmerising concert would doubt those words – or deny the transformative power of Cave’s music.

Distant Sky is released in cinemas for one night only on Thursday 12 April

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Don’t miss your chance to see Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds play live on 3 June in London at the All Points East festival. For more information and to buy tickets to the show, visit our event page.

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