Part concert film and part biography, Lian Lunson’s Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man is a moving tribute to this legendary artist’s life and career. Moreover, the film salutes four decades of Cohen’s songwriting output, a strategy that happily steers the movie toward an appreciation of the 71-year-old Cohen’s musical legacy rather the kind of dutiful hagiography that clouds so many other artist portraits.
Even if you think you’re not familiar with the songs of Leonard Cohen, it’s unlikely your ears haven’t been touched at least here and there by “Bird on a Wire” or “Suzanne,” to name what are probably his two most widely disseminated and reinterpreted tunes. Cohen’s sepulchral-sounding songs and his deep, hoarse-sounding voice are recognizable throughout the world—and have caused a detractor or two to suggest that a razor blade should be handed out along with his albums. Yet, the magnificence of his language reveals Cohen to be a poet of the first order and has earned him fans from nearly all walks of the music world, and in places you might never expect. Mel Gibson is an executive producer of this documentary, and even England’s Prince Charles testified about Cohen in an interview only two months ago: “He’s remarkable. I mean, the orchestration is fantastic and the words, the lyrics, and everything. He’s a remarkable man, and he has this incredibly, sort of laid-back, gravelly voice. It’s terrific stuff.”
The concert recorded for the film took place in January 2005 in Sydney, Australia, and titled, “Came So Far for Beauty,” after one of Cohen’s songs. Overseen by the maverick producer Hal Willner, the show featured an esteemed collection of musicians and vocalists performing and interpreting a vast array of Cohen songs. Among the most prominent are Nick Cave, Rufus Wainwright, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Beth Orton, Martha Wainwright, Linda Thompson, and Antony Hegarty.
Shrewdly, the film showcases only portions of the show, while intercutting footage of the director’s conversations with Cohen reflecting on his career: his Jewish childhood in Montreal and early years as a poet, his move to New York and life and times at the Chelsea Hotel, his introduction to Zen Buddhism and later monkhood, his ideas about life and beauty, and why he prefers to wear suits instead of jeans.
Rufus Wainwright introduces a song with a lovely story about the first time he met Cohen. Bono and the Edge from U2 also speak eloquently of Cohen’s influence: Bono describes how Cohen’s music has something for you in every stage of life, how there are shades in his blackness, and how he can write songs that can bring you to your knees and make you laugh at the same time.
The closing tune, “The Tower of Song,” is the only one Cohen actually performs in the movie, along with U2 backing him in a New York club. I’ll let the poetry of the song’s opening lyrics speak for itself: “My friends are gone and my hair is gray/ ache in the places where I used to play/ and I’m crazy for love but I’m not coming on/ I’m just paying my rent every day in the tower of song.”
LEONARD COHEN: I’M YOUR MAN ( * * * * )
Directed by Lian Lunsun. • Starring Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave and Bono. • PG-13, 104 min. • At the Osio Cinemas.