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Monday, February 28, 2011

LEONARD COHEN: I'M YOUR MAN -- movie review by porfle

Record producer Hal Willner's tribute to the legendary Leonard Cohen, entitled "Came So Far For Beauty" after one of his songs, was performed by various artists at the Sydney Opera House in 2005, and director Lian Lunson recorded it for posterity.  She also interviewed the people involved, who reverently recount how Cohen has influenced them, and Cohen himself, who seems rather pleasantly unaffected by it all, and the result is LEONARD COHEN: I'M YOUR MAN (2005), a sporadically interesting documentary that sometimes manages to rise above the often dreary interpretations of Cohen's songs. 

Some of the singers, in fact, display such reverence for the songs with which they've been entrusted it's almost as if they're standing in the First Church Of Leonard, treating the songs like fragile antique crystal that they're afraid to take out of their padded boxes and handle lest they break them.  Martha Wainwright, in particular, paces momentously before approaching the microphone, as though a higher state of mind must be reached before uttering Cohen's words, and then works herself into such a state of restrained agitation that she seems to risk a seizure just to emit the simple, wispy melody of "The Traitor."  And when she sings "Winter Lady" with her mother and aunt, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, it's one of those crystalline female harmony pieces that threatens to beat you over the head with its ethereal beauty.

Beth Orton looks like a farm girl in her Sunday-go-to-meetin' dress and seems so bad at first that I kept imagining Simon Cowell running out and kicking her off the stage, although her performance of "Sisters Of Mercy" sorta grew on me toward the end.  Just about the only time anyone is allowed to have any fun with their song is when Nick Cave does his casual, I'm-so-cool rendition of "I'm Your Man" at the beginning of the film.  Jarvis Crocker comes close to lightening things up a bit with "I Can't Forget", which sounds almost like a theme song for an old Western, but I found his performance unaffecting.  Later, a duet on "Anthem" with former Cohen backup singers Julie Christensen and Perla Batalla is so self-consciously overwrought that the defenseless song doesn't stand a chance against them.

Antony, a shy, overweight guy with long hair hanging in his face, is a bundle of nervous gestures that recall the class nerd trying to ask a cheerleader for a date.  So he surprised me with his clear, trilling voice as he sang "If It Be Your Will" with such a gradual build-up of genuine feeling that it turned out to be the most soulful segment of the concert.  He loses himself in the song, seems surprised and disappointed when it's over, and quickly leaves the stage as though embarrassed to have revealed himself so intimately in front of an audience.  Of all the performers here, Antony's probably the only one I'd actually like to hear more from. 

Bono: "The rest of us would be humbled by the stuff he throws away."

Leonard Cohen sometimes takes longer to write a single song than most people take to record an album, get it into the stores, and receive their Grammy for "Best New Artist."  He says that on a good day he'll get maybe ten words done.  One reason for this is that he doesn't rhyme "baby" with "maybe" or "waitin'" with "anticipatin'."  I hate to call song lyrics "poetry", but these come as close as it gets without coming off as pretentious.  "Poetry is just the evidence of life," he says.  "If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash."

I enjoyed the interview segments with Cohen the most and was let down whenever they faded out and another concert performance came creeping in.  "Well, my friends are gone and my hair is grey...I ache in the places where I used to play" he tells us in song, but it looks like he's settling into his later years quite gracefully.  He's an impeccably-dressed gentleman, intelligent, genial, low-key, thoughtful, self-effacing, spiritually complex, and interesting to listen to, especially when he recounts the period in which he actually became a monk in order to simplify his life.  Throughout the film we see examples of his artwork, which is often quite beautiful, and a wealth of photographs and home movies of his earlier days.

All during this tribute concert I was sure Cohen would appear onstage at last and sing one of his own songs as a finale, to the tumultuous reception of the worshipping crowd.  But instead, his performance takes place on the small stage of a burlesque club in New York City with no audience, just the members of U2 gathered close around him as his backup band.  The camera stays tight on his face with that wry, knowing smile, and that low voice which he says "can barely carry a tune" sings "The Tower Of Song" the way no interpreter of his songs ever could. 

It's the sort of thing I was waiting for throughout the rest of LEONARD COHEN: I'M YOUR MAN, and it's too bad the whole movie couldn't have been like this, because listening to other people sing Leonard Cohen's songs just makes me want to hear him sing them himself.

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1 comment:

Rebecca James said...

Amen to your concluding statement!