'Leonard Cohen: Bird on a Wire' Is Presented With a Naked, Visual Immediacy

Gorgeous cinematography, resonant audio quality and reverent intimacy combine with stunning live concert performances and candid off-stage sequences to show Cohen at the peak of his popularity and the top of his game.

Leonard Cohen: Bird on a Wire

Director: Tony Palmer
Cast: Leonard Cohen, Jennifer Warnes, Donna Washburn
Distributor: The Machat Company
US Release Date: 2010-09-21
UK Release Date: 2010-09-06
"Success is... success is survival."

-- Leonard Cohen 1972

Bird on a Wire follows Leonard Cohen on his 1972, 20-city European tour, which began in Dublin and ended in Jerusalem. A version of the film was shown theatrically, in limited release, in 1974, but disappeared shortly thereafter, the original print presumed lost. In 2009, however, pieces of the film, as well as original sound tracks, were discovered in a warehouse and assembled for this DVD which is beautifully presented in a white, gatefold digi-pak featuring a reproduction of Picasso’s "Dove of Peace" on its cover.

The package also contains a reproduction of the film’s original promotional poster and a collectible postcard. The most important part of this release is the film itself, of course. Thankfully, director Tony Palmer (200 Motels) has been able to use the found footage to restore Bird on a Wire to something that is very close to his initial vision.

It's a breath-taking vision. Gorgeous cinematography, alternating between black-and-white and color footage, rich, resonant audio quality and a sort of loose-but-reverent intimacy combine with stunning live concert performances and candid backstage, interview and travel sequences to show Cohen at the peak of his popularity and the top of his game.

There are 17 classic songs and four poems featured in Bird on a Wire, including "Avalanche", "Suzanne", "Passing Through", "Sisters of Mercy", "One Of Us Can’t Be Wrong", "Chelsea Hotel", "Famous Blue Raincoat" and, of course, "Bird On A Wire". Cohen sounds magnificent on all of these, naturally, while Palmer's deft use of space imparts a certain feeling of actually being in the audience at one of these shows, or of being the subject of the poems, sitting just off camera as Cohen recites directly to you. The closeness of the camera evokes a deeper sense of shared secrecy, a naked and honest, almost overwhelming, visual immediacy that suits the raw, emotional weight of Cohen's work.

It works well for the banter between songs, too. One close-up concert clip catches Cohen responding to a call from the crowd. He explains, "I love it when you call out like that. I believe that... that I'm going to meet my love. It's going to be some girl who calls out". He implores, "Call out", and you want to, even though it's 38 years later and he will not hear you. This affecting segment goes on with the tale of how it is both fortunate and justified that the next song's rights were stolen, because, "It would be wrong to write this song and get rich from it too". The crowd cheers as Palmer's lens sneaks in ever closer and Cohen slips into the hypnotic and wildly romantic "Suzanne". Quite honestly, the entire effect is rather devastating.

In the non-concert scenes and interview footage, the feeling is more akin to being a fly on the wall. Some of these moments seem surreptitiously captured, such as when Cohen is chatting up a woman backstage until it becomes apparent the camera has intruded. Others seem to be bits of accidental treasure, gathered in passing and only later revealed. Take, for instance, the clip where Cohen, speaking about creativity—or rather not speaking about it—tells an earnest interviewer that he doesn't know anything about that, and that if he does, "It's like speaking about one's own religion... it doesn't serve you to speak about those things". When the journalist presses on, asking, "Well, what do you like to talk about?" Cohen, equally earnest, replies, "I prefer not to speak at all."

This from a man whose words continue to call out across the years.






The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.


The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.


Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.


'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.


'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"


Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.


The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".


GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".


Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".


Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.


Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.


The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".


Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.


Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.