Leonard Cohen is what they call a “living legend.” His songs, poetry, and novels have inspired and bemused audiences worldwide since the ‘60s. And it turns out that on screen, he’s as engaging and enigmatic as in his music and writing. And yet, Lian Lunson’s concert documentary, Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man, works against itself, with too many gushing tributes and not enough Cohen.
The documentary comprises footage from a 2005 concert at the Sydney Opera House that paid tribute to Cohen’s work, as well as talking-head footage of Cohen and the tribute-paying musicians discussing his legacy in anecdotes. True, the assembly of musicians is impressive, including Nick Cave, the Handsome Family, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, and Beth Orton. But in their performances, many artists either try too hard to re-imagine the original (Rufus Wainwright’s kitschy version of “Everybody Knows” exchanges the song’s dark humor for camp) or overshadow the material to a fault (Jarvis Cocker’s fey swagger on “I Can’t Forget” strips it of its mystery).
Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man
Leonard Cohen, Rufus Wainwright, Bono, Nick Cave
US theatrical: 21 Jun 2006 (Limited release)
Only twice do song and the artist coalesce into something as evocative as Cohen’s work: Martha Wainwright’s reticent vocals on “The Traitor” and Antony’s tender restraint during “If It Be Your Will” both understand the songs as I do, when I’m listening at home with my eyes closed (perhaps the way Cohen is meant to be heard). In fact, the film hardly looks at Cohen’s music head on, instead offering this assortment of interpretations and brief glimpses of Cohen that only make you hunger for more of him.
Lunson sets the precedent of Leonard Cohen, the man, as somewhat peripheral to the film at the outset, beginning not with Cohen, but with Cave singing “I’m Your Man.” However, when Cohen does speak, the film does appreciate it: over a montage of black and white baby photos, he recalls that as a child he was thankful to be “alive in the horror.” While it’s striking that a child could think such a thing, as he tells it, his face composed, his eyes kind, you believe him. And when he explains that he would instruct an artist seeking “fulfillment” in life to abandon his masterpiece, because only this will allow him to sink into the “real masterpiece,” the notion seems both personal and grand. After it grants access to such relatively profound thoughts, the movie then routinely cuts to a meandering performance from the tribute concert, each time giving the audience a chance to chew on Cohen’s words.
Another pattern in I’m Your Man is the inclusion of streaks of glimmering crimson, at first inexplicably superimposed over Cohen’s interviews or photographs. This motif, clearly inserted with much precision, is more distracting than illuminating. Eventually revealed as the backdrop for the final concert number, these shimmers, along with dream-like cinematography and audio hiccups, build an unconvincing mystery around a man who needs no such frills to be perceived as ethereal. (He is, after all, an ordained monk with the Zen Church.) The movie can’t let Cohen be Cohen.
I’m Your Man‘s ultimate destination, Cohen sharing a cabaret-like stage with U2, is anti-climactic. This is underlined by the fact that Bono’s praise of Cohen, staggered throughout the film, reads most disingenuous. After several over-the-top sound bites comparing Cohen to Keats or Byron, he turns to the camera and says, “I mean, come on, can we get serious? ... Cohen is a genius.” And so, a rather unremarkable rendition of “Tower of Song,” with Bono supplying backing vocals, seems unnecessary. This after the film submits repeatedly that Cohen is more literate and influential than anything in music today. How disappointing to see him at last, consorting with mere mortals.
Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man - Theatrical Trailer