26 June 2006 | Chris Knipp
Tantalizing hodgepodge not quite worthy of a remarkable men
Leonard Cohen is a songwriters' songwriter, like Townes van Zandt, about whom a documentary film appeared last year. The subject of this new one, produced by Lion's Gate Television and now in limited US release in theaters – is famous here and in Europe and an icon in Canada and still vital today, in his early seventies, after a very long career -- though younger mainstream pop fans may be unfamiliar with his name. A Jew from Montreal, the son of a successful haberdasher who died when he was nine but left him money to live on, Cohen means a lot to people who write songs or who've cared about lyrics from the Sixties when John Hammond discovered him and the Seventies when Robert Altman used his songs in McCabe and Mrs. Miller and on into the present day, when he has returned to perform after an absence of over a decade, partly due to financial need. But you won't get all this information from this documentary. Nor will this be the ideal introduction to the man and his work.
The film cuts into music with talking heads in the manner of such films and is mainly an editing together of a concert honoring Cohen featuring Nick Cave, Rufus Wainwright, Beth Orton, Jarvis Cocker, and others with a long interview of Cohen at his home in L.A. interspersed with old footage of the man's life. Some overly pointed tricks with stills and overlays of red blobs are a distracting element in what otherwise is technically unimpressive film-making. The impression that emerges is that Cohen interviewed intercut with texts of his poems and himself singing would make a fine and intelligent film. Concerts by admirers would be another, lesser, film. Combining the two elements diminishes both and results in a film that seems slapped together.
At the end as a kind of surprise Cohen himself sings a song backed up by Bono and the Edge, who've sung his praises in words earlier. However this performance is unremarkable and not a climactic finale.
Cohen in his interview amid many wise and pithy remarks provides us with a tantalizingly sketchy narrative of what sounds like a fascinating life: we find out that he grew up in Montreal and was active with a group of poets there; has lived on the island of Hydra and in the Chelsea Hotel and made love to Janis Joplin and wrote a song about her; has a reputation as a ladies man but has spent "ten thousand nights alone"; has been ordained as a Zen monk and lived in a monastery on Mount Baldy; learned early the virtues of modesty and despair and the acceptance of failure as inevitable. We would like to learn more.
Respect is clearly due a writer-musician of such originality and intelligence, but apart from the uneasy linkage of interview and songs, the concert clips covered in this film might have been better if the performances had been more straightforward and less worshipful. The songs are made into anthems and the most essential element, the words, gets muddled. I'm pleased to be introduced to Rufus Wainwright, whose voice and personality are irresistible, and who's a Montrealer too. Nick Cave, whom some see as a kind of heir to Cohen as a complex lyricist, isn't half bad either in singing Cohen's songs, in a second-tier cabaret singer sort of way; his performance of Cohen's most famous song, "Susanne,"which even I immediately recognized, is not unworthy. And this is one place where the interview and the concert come together effectively, since Cohen comments on the song's actual origins just before the performance is shown.
There ought to have been more of the flat tuneless singing of Leonard Cohen himself, which is probably the best way to experience his lyrics, without too much musical embroidery. Is it that unlike Townes Van Zandt's, Cohen's Sixties and Seventies performances are unfilmed? The other speakers about the man are as worshipful as the concertizers. They go so overboard in praising him that they could be talking about Socrates or Jesus. Bono is an eloquent speaker, but not a precise one.
This overblown praise is curiously inappropriate for someone as modest and ironic as Cohen -- and so well able to speak for himself. When songwriters are also poets or wits, like Bob Dylan or Tom Lehrer or Cohen, they don't need tuneful voices but what they do need is clarity of diction -- which they have, and the men in the concert, Jarvis Cocker, Nick Cave, Wainwright, have, but the women performers, including Wainwright's own sister, tend to lack. The ideal audience for this film is one that can approach it already armed with worshipful reverence. If you know noting about Leonard Cohen, the place to start would be not here, but with his own recordings, moving on to the more detailed bios available online and then perhaps (though I haven't been there) to his published writings, which include both poems and novels. Only after acquiring a thorough familiarity with Cohen's writing and singing would one want to hear elaborate covers of his songs.
Some viewers of this film find Antony's performance of "If It Be Your Will" awesome and deeply moving. I found it awkward, peculiar, and embarrassing. Not for the first time in the film, egocentric hamming overpowered the simple power of the song. And ironically, when the performances most excelled musically, they seemed to lose touch with the Leonard Cohen flavor of the songs.
The director, Lian Lunson, is a woman from Australia who's a good friend of Bono and who has done a film about Willie Nelson – and has the dubious honor of having composed the music for The Passion of the Christ. She has said Mel Gibson is a big fan of both Cohen and Nick Cave, and helped her get the film produced by Lion's Gate.