It’s a given these days that Leonard Cohen is one of our great rock poets. Writer Larry “Ratso” Sloman classifies him with Bob Dylan and Kinky Friedman as key Jewish rock artists of the 20th century. And as one of my colleagues said after a screening of Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man, Cohen’s album Songs of Leonard Cohen, must certainly be a seminal record of the 1960s, comparable to Highway 61 Revisited, Led Zeppelin 4, London Calling, and Trout Mask Replica.
But like many a cultural star, such as Jack Kerouac or David Lynch, Cohen is not much like what his fans take him to be. Far from the scruffy, hedonistic rocker or folkie, Cohen has always been a well-coifed, sartorially splendid specimen whose garb was at odds with the brooding sex-and-religion-obsessed songs he sang, or spoke-sang to be more accurate, the songs themselves born of his play with language as well as a deep depression he struggled with from the age of nine, when his father died (a trust fund financed Cohen’s artistic career). The depression lifted only when he submitted himself to the strict monk’s life of the Mount Baldy Zen Center but it reigned in his mental climate despite the fact of his liaisons with such beauties as Marianne Jensen, Suzanne Elrod, Rebecca De Mornay, and Anjani Thomas (he even banged Janis Joplin, and then wrote a song about it, “Chelsea Hotel No. 2″).
Still, Cohen wasn’t really a Dylan because he wasn’t given to experimentation or even change, and he wasn’t a Friedman because he wasn’t a rock and roller. He was more like a male Laura Nyro, his songs meant to be listened alone in a darkened bedroom as you gently rock back and forth on the bed with your eyes closed.
Ultimately, Cohen may be a musician’s musician and a writer’s writer, an avatar to be followed and a maker of lyrics of admirable but unique complexity. Thus rock musicians go nuts over him, and Cohen has enjoyed numerous tribute albums over the years, including 1991’s I’m Your Fan with the likes of R.E.M. and the Pixies, and 1995’s Tower of Song, featuring Sting, Elton John, and Willie Nelson.
Perhaps some day Cohen will get the documentary cum rock concert movie celebration he deserves, but Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man is not it. This is a flaccid, dull, insufficiently informative film that has too many borderline pop stars pretending to love the songs and not enough of Cohen himself.
The film comes in two parts that are shuffled together. The first part is excerpts from a series of interviews with Cohen, with comments by others on him. Cohen looking, if you’ll forgive me, like handsome Dustin Hoffman, speaks to someone off camera while in extreme close-up, close enough to expose the broken vessels in his nose, and director Lian Lunson sees fit to “play” with the image like a Stan Brakhage gone mad, with digital impositions and a general shakiness. Still, Cohen speaks in a clear, well-practiced voice, making charmingly self-deprecating remarks, such as that “I had the title poet, and maybe I was one for a while. Also the title singer was kindly accorded me, even though I could barely carry a tune.”
As a transitional device, Lunson also imposes a double exposure of what look like red lights or a curtain, which only makes sense at the end of the film, when the 74-year-old Cohen is finally granted leave to sing on his own behalf. Unfortunately he does so with U2. Bono and The Edge are getting to be like Spike Lee, who is hauled out as a talking head in every documentary about race, as if he is the sole spokesman for a people. As exemplars of a caring, political rock music, the U2 boys are the instant experts on all things musical. But since they admitted in (the utterly boring) Rattle and Hum that they knew little about music, these assignments must require a great deal of cramming with the Rolling Stone Album Guide to bring them up to speed before the camera rolls.
The second part of the film is a concert, titled “Came So Far For Beauty,” and staged at the Sydney Opera House in January, 2005 by producer Hal Willner, who may or may not understand the subject of his tribute. The performers include Rufus Wainwright (a painfully sloppy performer), his mom and aunt, Kate and Anna McGarrigle (folkies far from Cohen’s style, but like him raised in Montreal), Martha Wainwright, his sister, Nick Cave (in an adopted Cohenish suit and growl), Beth Orton, Antony (of Antony and the Johnsons) doing “If It Be Your Will”, Teddy Thompson (son of Richard), Jarvis Cocker (son of Joe), and Julie Christensen and Perla Batalla.
Most of these performers are appallingly bad, with no feel for the songs. Or it may be that producer Willner has no feel for the songs, despite his exclamations over them at the start of the movie. Only Antony, a sort of a gay Joe Cocker, with body twitches out of rhythm with the beat, evinces even the least bit of feeling for the words behind the songs. Wainwright Soeur also has weird body language, with a kind of leaning down onto a mike that is positioned low on the stage. Jarvis, despite his heritage, is the normal one.
Watching Thompson sing the Cohen song, “Tonight Will Be Fine,” made me feel like my parents. Why does he have to scrunch his face? Is he in pain? Why doesn’t he sell the song, like a Frankie or a Perry or a Wayne? And what’s with the hair? But badly done rock and roll can do that to you, take you outside the Dionysian celebration, and make you feel old and alienated. That Cohen isn’t really a rock and roller in the first place should have been obvious to the singers and producers involved in this show.
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