Leonard Cohen: I'm Your ManReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 07/14/06 00:14:25
If you are a fan of Leonard Cohen, the brilliant Canadian singer-songwriter whose lyrics are among the few in contemporary music that could be described as poetry with a straight face, what kind of documentary would you like to see made about him–one in which he talks about his long and fascinating life and career while performing such classic songs as “Bird on a Wire,” “Chelsea Hotel #2,” “Suzanne,” “Hallelujah” and “Everybody Knows” or one in which brief interview segments are interspersed with cover versions of his songs performed by contemporary fans of his work? Speaking as a Cohen fanatic myself, I am guessing that the majority of you would lean towards the former because while his work has inspired any number of cover versions over the years, none have come close to comparing the sonic delight of his gravelly voice crooning his alternately romantic and doom-laden hymns of love, death and everything in between. However, the makers of “Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man” have mysteriously chosen to take the second approach and the result is a film that is entertaining enough on a surface level but one that doesn’t quite do justice to its subject–everyone involved is so hell-bent on explaining why he deserves to be coronated that there is hardly time left for him to demonstrate those qualities for himself.The centerpiece of the film is the “Came So Far For Beauty” tribute concert that was put together in Sydney, Australia by music producer Hal Willner in January of 2005. Although Cohen’s songs have been covered by any number of superstars–Don Henley. Jennifer Warnes, U2, Billy Joel, the Neville Brothers and Johnny Cash are just a few of those to tackle his work over the years–the performers on this bill were lesser-known cult favorites such as Rufus Wainwright (“Everybody Knows,” “Chelsea Hotel #2" and “Hallelujah”), Martha Wainwright (“The Traitor”), Linda Thompson (“A Thousand Kisses Deep”), Jarvis Crocker (“Death of a Ladies’ Man”) Beth Orton (“Sisters of Mercy”) and Nick Cave (“I’m Your Man” and “Suzanne”). In between songs, they, along with the members of U2, speak of the personal and professional influence and impact that Cohen and his work has had on their lives. In addition to all of this, we are treated to snippets of an extended interview with Cohen, in which he ruminates about his life and work, that often lead into the next song to be performed. However, only at the end of the film does director Lian Lunson give viewers what they have presumably been clamoring for–an actual performance from Cohen himself, a weirdly touching rendition of “Tower of Song,” backed up by none other than U2, that was apparently filmed in a burlesque house.
Generally, music documentaries fall into one of two categories–either they are straightforward biographical pieces or they are straightforward performance films–but Lunson tries to combine both here and the results are a mixed bag indeed. While the performances during the concert segments are pretty good–the only dog of the bunch is Rufus Wainwright’s camped-up take on “Everybody Knows”–none of them are able to match the power and passion of Cohen’s original renditions (though Cave comes admittedly come pretty close with his attempts). Even if they did, it is unlikely that viewers would be able to tell for sure because Lunson has made the inexplicable decision to cut away in the middle of many of the songs to shoehorn in some more commentary from the various interview subjects. It gets so ridiculous that she shows us some behind-the-scenes footage of all the artists rehearsing what was evidently going to be the grand finale (which was apparently “Memories”) and then never bothers to show the actual performance. This is an extremely annoying approach that does a disservice to both Cohen’s material and those interpreting it and I cannot imagine why Lunson didn’t just let the performances play through–was she afraid that people were going to go to a film celebrating the music of Leonard Cohen and walk away complaining that there was too much of it?
Although the commentary from the artists ranges from useless piffle–the ever-subtle Bono compares Cohen to Keats and Shelly–to the charming–Rufus Wainwright has an especially amusing story about the first time he met Cohen in person while Nick Cave describes encountering his music for the first time while growing up in Australia–the meat of the non-performance material comes from the bits of conversation with Cohen that are seen throughout the film. Although some of his stories may be familiar to hard-core fans, such as his revelations about the true facts behind such songs as “Suzanne” and “Chelsea Hotel #2,” there are a number of fascinating bits of trivia as well–while it should come as no surprise to learn that he was influenced by the poetry found in the Bible as a young man, who would have suspected that he was also a fan of Aquaman?–and a touching story about coping with the death of his father at a young age.
However, there are too many aspects of his life and work that are either touched upon far too briefly or flat-out ignored. Those interested in his take on the memorable use of his music in Robert Altman’s “McCabe & Mrs Miller” and Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers,” his oddball collaboration with producer Phil Spector (which resulted in the cult favorite “Death of a Ladies Man” and the infamous song “Don’t Go Home With Your Hard-On”) or his decision to use the moment of his career renaissance (after the release of his 1992 masterpiece “The Future”) to virtually disappear for nine years to study Buddhism will be disappointed to discover that the first subject isn’t mentioned at all and the others are only briefly touched upon. The shame of it is that, unlike many other musical icons, he isn’t one of those guys who is only able to communicate through his work–I had the pleasure of interviewing him once many years ago and found him as charming and eloquent as anyone that I have written about. All I can think of is that either Lunson isn’t a very good filmmaker or she decided to leave the good stuff for the DVD bonus features.Taken either as a simple record of a tribute concert or as a class in Leonard Cohen 101, “Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man” is at best an average work–it is the kind of thing that will probably feel most at home either on VH-1 or as a PBS special airing during one of their pledge drives. However, for anyone who has been a longtime fan of Cohen–presumably the entire target audience–the film will come as a disappointing work that fails to properly celebrate the man and his music. There is a great film to be made on the subject of Leonard Cohen–alas, this one just isn’t it.
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