This film review originally appeared in the Australian Jewish News on February 2, 2007
Directed by Lian Lunson
As far as I can tell, the world is divided into two types: those who love Leonard Cohen’s music and those who do not. Those in the first category will want to see the new documentary Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man.
Leonard Cohen is an almost indefinable folk singer, poet and writer. Bono (from U2, interviewed in this film) likens his poetry to Shelley, Keats and Byron. Another interviewee describes his music as “jazz riffs and muffled prayer”. By Cohen’s own admission, he has a terrible voice – “like from a subway”. But over the course of some decades, he has produced some of the most sensual, mournful and memorable songs, many of them sung more famously by others (think “Hallelujah”). Canadian-born Cohen is also an incurable – and highly durable – romantic. He is humble, funny and – this is probably why so many people attune deeply to him – deeply spiritual.
In the Sydney Festival of January 2005, an historic Leonard Cohen tribute concert was organised at the Sydney Opera House by music producer Hal Willner. Called “Came So Far For Beauty”, it featured a fascinating array of musicians singing Cohen’s songs: Nick Cave, Rufus Wainwright, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Martha Wainwright, Beth Orton, Linda Thompson, Teddy Thompson, Jarvis Cocker, The Handsome Family, Julie Christensen and Perla Batalla. Australian-born LA-based documentary film-maker Lian Lunson obtained permission to film the concert, and subsequently went about making a documentary about Cohen. To do this, she befriended Cohen and conducted many hours of interviews with him.
The result is a deceptively simple but artfully structured documentary. Interspersed with twelve songs from the concert are interview segments with Cohen and others which illustrate and illuminate the songs with stories from and about Cohen’s life. Cohen is frequently hilarious, always humble and very thoughtful. It took me a while to attune to what was going on, but the result is frequently very moving and – for Cohen fans at least – always entertaining. I loved some of the musical interpretations (the Wainwrights doing “Hallelujah”), although found others distinctly odd (Cave’s “Suzanne”). The result is powerful, and after an almost unbearable wait to hear Cohen himself sing, the final number features Cohen doing “Tower of Song” taped in New York, with Bono and U2 as his backing band. Strange? You bet. Effective? Absolutely.
Director Lunson had done a similar film on Willie Nelson, and is friends with Mel Gibson (yes, that Mel), who is listed as one of this film’s co-producers, as he helped to line up finance from Lions Gate films. Despite the enormous achievement of Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man, ultimately the subject seems to elude the director. It may in part be due to Cohen’s illusive nature (although he is more open than Bob Dylan in Martin Scorsese’s recent documentary), or because the director became so close to her subject, or may be she just missed some essential element.
There is no exploration of Cohen’s Jewish background, influences or musical resonances, although Cohen does mention going to synagogue and how the “Bible stories sent shivers down my spine”, and there are a number of cutaways to a mirror in the shape of a Magen David. But that’s it. At one point, one interviewee speculates that Cohen wrote “Sisters of Mercy” because he grew up seeing so many churches in his home town of Montreal. What rubbish. At least Scorsese tried to put Dylan’s Minnesota background into perspective.
The point is that something’s missing here: not one criticism of Cohen the man, and not one mention of how he may have made artistic, musical, personal, relationship, professional, financial or spiritual mistakes in his life.
So this will probably not be the last or the best documentary on Leonard Cohen, but it may well be the most entertaining and musically varied. At the Sydney Festival preview of this film which I attended, a full quarter of the 300+ people in the audience had actually been to the original concert two years before. They were still raving about it. Watch this film to feel some of the magic that happened then.