'Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man': A Documentary Song of Praise
By STEPHEN HOLDEN
Published: June 21, 2006
When Leonard Cohen speaks, the elevated cadences of language are
strewn with poetic images so precisely articulated in a rumbling
bass-baritone voice that they all but erase the distinction between
his song lyrics and personal conversation. Each word is carefully
chosen and pronounced with oratorical flourish. Even when his
sepulchral drone isn't bending itself around a melody, its sound is
Here is one sample of his conversational style, from Lian Lunson's
wonderful documentary portrait, "Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man."
Reflecting on the inspiration for his song "The Traitor," he muses
that it is about "failing or betraying some mission you were mandated
to fulfill and being unable to fulfill it and then coming to
understand that the real mandate was not to fulfill it but to stand
guiltless in the predicament in which you found yourself."
If a strain of gallows humor didn't underlie many of Mr. Cohen's
pronouncements, such observations might sound insufferably
pretentious. But he continually undercuts his own solemnity. Here is
he is on his own mystique as a silver-tongued Casanova: "My reputation
as a ladies' man was a joke. It caused me to laugh bitterly the 10,000
nights I spent alone."
"Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man" combines pieces of an extended interview
with this Canadian singer-songwriter, poet and author, now 71, with a
tribute concert organized by Hal Willner at the Sydney Opera House in
January 2005. Titled "Came So Far for Beauty" (after a Cohen song),
the event featured performances of many of Mr. Cohen's best-known
songs by Nick Cave, Rufus Wainwright, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Martha
Wainwright and Antony (of Antony and the Johnsons), among others.
Some of the performers offer pungent personal comments. Mr. Cave
recalls discovering Mr. Cohen's "Songs of Love and Hate" album while
living in a remote Australian town and suddenly "feeling like the
coolest person in the world because it separated me from everyone and
everything I detested."
Bono and Edge from U2, who did not participate in the Sydney event,
offer extravagant tributes and near the end of the film are shown
accompanying Mr. Cohen in a New York club performance of "Tower of
Song." Edge likens him to "the man coming down from the mountaintop
with tablets of stone having been up there talking to the angels."
Bono observes, "As dark as he gets, you still sense that beauty is truth."
Mr. Wainwright, who performs more songs than any other guest, sings
"Everybody Knows," "Chelsea Hotel No. 2" (Mr. Cohen's self-deprecating
and indiscreet reminiscence of a sexual encounter with Janis Joplin),
and "Hallelujah" (the Cohen song Mr. Wainwright and Jeff Buckley have
made something of a downtown standard).
He locates the dark humor at the bottom of "Everybody Knows," a bleak
prophecy about the end of the world as we know it. Backstage he
recalls the first time he met Mr. Cohen, who was in his underwear,
cooking soba noodles and feeding bits of sausage on a toothpick to
revive a baby bird. It wasn't until Mr. Cohen disappeared and returned
wearing an Armani suit, Mr. Wainwright said, that he realized he was
in the presence of a legend.
Two of the other more memorable performances come from Antony, who
cries out "If It Be Your Will" in an eerie, shivering falsetto, and
Teddy Thompson (son of Richard and Linda), who stamps the more obscure
Cohen song "Tonight Will Be Fine" with the concert's most intense
Reflecting on his life and work, Mr. Cohen recalls first encountering
poetry in the Jewish liturgy at a synagogue. Some of his more recent
recollections are of a purgative sojourn in a Zen monastery during the
1990's on Mount Baldy, where he studied with a Japanese Zen master.
But a Zen-like austerity has always been present in his writing. A Zen
spirit also informs his modest self-assessment of his life's work.
"I had the title poet, and maybe I was one for a while," he says.
"Also the title singer was kindly accorded me, even though I could
barely carry a tune."
"Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man" is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly
cautioned). It contains some strong language.
Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man
Opens today in Manhattan
Directed by Lian Lunson; directors of photography, Geoff Hall and John
Pirozzi; edited by Mike Cahill; music by Leonard Cohen, performed by
Nick Cave, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Rufus Wainwright, Martha
Wainwright, Antony, Linda Thompson, the Handsome Family, Beth Orton,
Teddy Thompson, Jarvis Cocker, Perla Batalla, Julie Christensen, Joan
Wasser and U2; produced by Ms. Lunson, Mel Gibson and Bruce Davey;
released by Lionsgate. At the Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street,
west of Avenue of the Americas, South Village. Running time: 104