Screen Shot 2014-09-28 at 11.02.42 AMTroubling buzz surrounds 20,000 Days on Earth, the most dangerous of all perhaps being its classification as “rock-doc.” This is not entirely inaccurate, given its elements of both rock and doc. 20,000 Days on Earth chronicles the 20,000th day of musician Nick Cave’s life as he and his band The Bad Seeds prepare their album Push The Sky Away—or it purports to do so, anyway. But to classify the film as documentary is to ignore its decidedly un-documentarian methods. This isn’t a traditional rock-doc, one that lauds and lionizes a musician’s career in all its perfection and undying influence. Rather, it is something of a wolf in sheep’s clothing, having slipped into Sundance’s documentary category, while it might be better suited in a category for docufiction. It’s a portrait of the artist at his most gloomily poetic and enticingly apocalyptic.

In the film’s opening moments, directors Jane Pollard and Iain Forsyth introduce a drowsy Cave waking up with characteristically inky hair and menacing brow. But the linear and mundane narrative of the typical biopic soon fractures into something more sinister, leaving no room for the usual rock-doc fodder of talking heads or excessive archival tapes. Cave’s dreamy and elegiac inner monologue punctuates the film, giving a voice to the self-professed fiction that he occupies as a performer.

The theme of self-mythologizing reverberates throughout. In one scene, we see Cave in a meeting with his Freudian psychoanalyst, in which shares his earliest memories and deepest fears. In another, Cave visits his own archive, revisiting relics from his past and sharing urine-saturated anecdotes from his days in the Aussie punk outfit The Birthday Party. But in reality, both events were fabricated. Darian Leader is a psychoanalyst by trade, but he and Cave met for two days in five-hour sessions to shoot the therapy scenes. His office is a set. The same is true of the Cave archives, filmed on a set for ten hours. As such, it is difficult to separate the real Cave, the magnetic and enigmatic musician, from Cave the character, who drives around Brighton cast in a misty noir light. The effect, however, is far from frustrating. It only allows us to sink our teeth deeper into the question of documentary—are these sentiments real? Did that really happen? Does it matter? The question of façade becomes unimportant, allowing us to appreciate the artful execution of a performer’s life, however surreal it may be.

The most intimate moments of the film are captured not in the carefully constructed encounters filmed on set, but rather in scenes of Cave driving around Brighton in his car. For one, Brighton, arguably the film’s second largest character, is stormy and brooding enough to be the setting of Cave’s wandering psyche. My moods control Brighton’s wild weather, Cave thinks at one point. If only he could control his moods. As he drives, different characters float in and out of the car, providing not-quite-real conversations for Cave to mull over. As Cave shares the tight space with three artists—actor Ray Winstone, former Bad Seed Blixa Bargeld, and one-time collaborator Kylie Minogue—they fill Cave’s ruminating headspace with questions of performance and artistic identity that Pollard and Forsyth so carefully prod at throughout the film. Indeed, these dreamy interactions and reflections play a larger role in the film than the music itself, which comes to function as a counterpart to the perpetual musings and stream-of-consciousness inner monologue

Early in the film, Cave describes songwriting as an exercise in counterbalance, mischievously longing to occupy his lyrics with both children and Mongolian psychopaths. In a sense, 20,000 Days on Earth strives to achieve a similar balance— whether it’s Cave’s internal riffing and outward expressions of self, the unlikely marriage of fact and fiction, the wildly oscillating weather patterns of Brighton, or the transformative power of performance that shifts from unyielding to explosive. In “Jubilee Street,” he sings, “I’m transforming. I’m vibrating. Look at me now.” Even in his own quasi-fictional word, the transformation is undeniable.