Review: Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man

Touted as the next Dylan when he signed a recording contract with Columbia Records back in 1967, Leonard Cohen at the time was already recognized as a poet and novelist. After releasing Songs of Love and Hate and other albums, his career took a nosedive in the 1980s. Since then he has periodically staged comebacks, with the 1988 album I'm Your Man generating the most interest. By 1995, Cohen was ensconced in an ashram on Mount Baldy outside Los Angeles, practicing Zen as a means to better understanding his identity.

In 2005, the Canadian Consulate helped stage a tribute to Cohen in Sydney, Australia. This work documents that concert, and offers as well interviews with the performers and with Cohen himself. Director Lian Lunson also had access to a wide selection of archival footage and photographs. Most concert films follow familiar formulas, and Leonard Cohen… is no exception. Songs are captured by two or three cameras stationed far away from the stage and usually above eye level. Back-up musicians are ignored, or used as brief cutaways. It's a method that makes it difficult to become engaged with the performers, unless like Bono they project enough personality to fill an arena. In what's also become a genre trope, Lunson cuts away from performances for explanatory comments from Cohen and others, a strategy that distracts attention from the songs and the musicians. The movie edits out all of the songs' instrumental passages, which indicates how much importance Cohen attaches to them.

Most of the dozen or so songs in the film are delivered in intensely passionate styles, often at odds with Cohen's own interpretations. The overwrought Antony and the eccentric Martha Wainwright are both overshadowed by a heartbreakingly simple and concise Linda Thompson. Nick Cave gets two of Cohen's most famous songs, "I'm Your Man" and "Suzanne," while Rufus Wainwright performs three, either alone or in tandem with his family. Teddy Thompson (Linda's son) is quietly effective in "Tonight Will Be Fine." Lunson saves the big guns for the close, a music video of Cohen singing "Tower of Song," backed by U2.

Throughout his career, Cohen has fully participated in his own mythmaking, a trait made even more apparent by Lunson's frankly adulatory stance. Typically, Cohen reveals little in his interviews. Banalities like the fact that stories "sent shivers down my spine" intertwine with denials that he ever sought or deserved success. Cynics may find a motive for the tribute and the film in Cohen's recent legal problems. Last year he sued his former lover and long-time manager Kelly Lynch for $21.5 million, claiming that she looted his pension fund after he retreated to the monastery. Cohen won a $5 million award, but collecting it will be another matter.

Cast and credits

Featuring: Leonard Cohen, Martha Wainwright, Beth Orton, Jarvis Cocker, Rufus Wainwright, Nick Cave, Perla Batalla, Julie Christensen, Antony, Linda Thompson, Teddy Thompson, Kate McGarrigle, Anna McGarrigle, the Handsome Family, U2 (Bono, the Edge, Larry Mullen, Jr., Adam Clayton), Joan Wasser.

Credits: Directed by Lian Lunson. Produced by Lian Lunson, Mel Gibson, Bruce Davey. Executive producers: Kevin Beggs, Sarah Greenberg, Erik Nelson, Tim Palen, Sandra Stern. Camera: Geoff Hall (Sydney, Australia), John Pirozzi (New York City). Super 8 photography: Lian Lunson, Brit Marling. Edited by Mike Cahill. Music by Leonard Cohen. Music producer and curator of the "Came So Far for Beauty" concert: Hal Willner. A Lionsgate and Sundance Channel presentation of a Lionsgate, Icon Productions, and Horse Pictures production.

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