Imagine being told the best band you’ve never heard before just played a mind-blowing concert nearby, but it’s okay that you missed it because there was an all-access documentary produced around the event. The documentary shows you all of the practice, fine-tuning and songwriting leading up to the day of that mind-blowing, life-changing, world-stopping concert, and then documents none of the performance itself, just the reactions of the people who were there in the audience. Would that leave you frustrated or satisfied? The recent small scale documentary As Is details the behind-the-scenes production of a one-time-only multimedia performance staged by visual artist Nick “Not That Nick Cave” Cave in Shreveport, Louisiana in 2015. The film documents all of the artist’s intent, production logistics, and cultural context in the weeks leading up to this performance, then stops short of documenting any of the real thing once it’s executed. It’s like watching the behind the scenes footage of a concert you weren’t invited to for a band you’ve never heard of before. It’s very frustrating.
Glimpses at Nick Cave’s visual creations is certainly the draw for this unassuming art doc. Cave is most well-known for his “sound suits,” costumes that essentially look like a Yo Gabba Gabba! character made out of brightly colored cheerleader pompoms. The construction of these costumes is very reminiscent of the similar traditional garb worn at Cajun Mardi Gras celebrations (Courir de Mardi Gras); the beaded blankets meant to accompany them in the one-time performance are similar to the beading of Mardi Gras Indian costumes. This Louisiana cultural context is entirely ignored by Cave, an “international artist” who acts as if he were creating these works in a void. Incorporating over 600 collaborators from the Shreveport area as beaders, dancers, musicians, and lyricists, he certainly interacts with the local community. He just treats that interaction like an act of charity instead of a cultural exchange by making a huge to do about how his show has elevated local visual art with high falutin’ NYC production values. He speaks of the cultural & religious undertones in As Is in such vague terms that by the time a gospel choir arrives to sing about how “He changed my life and now I’m free” it’s understandable to assume they’re praising Nick Cave, not God. Lip service is paid to healing the trauma of Katrina, homelessness, mental illness, and so on among the local people of Shreveport, but as the film goes on the whole show starts to feel like a complex ego boost for Cave himself and nobody else.
So, was As Is a once-in-a-lifetime art event that forever transformed Shreveport and sealed Nick Cave’s legacy as a charitable, soul-healing deity? It’s tough to tell, because this film does not invite the audience to see the performance for themselves. The gospel, zydeco, light shows, sound suits, and (appallingly muted) Big Freedia performances suggest that it could have either been a total mess or a work of genius. Without being given enough evidence to verify either way, it’s difficult not to turn on Nick Cave as he boasts at length about the transformative nature of his art and all of the good deeds he’s done bringing real culture to Shreveport (again, without acknowledging the immediate similarities between his work & long-established Louisiana culture). As Is might be a much more rewarding doc for anyone who actually witnessed its subject in person, but for everyone on the outside looking in, it’s a frustratingly incomplete work about the supposedly transformative accomplishments of a very vain man. At least the beading and sound suits are verifiably cool-looking; there isn’t much else to latch onto.