Cohen is Our Man

There was a packed house at the ByTowne last night for the new Leonard Cohen documentary. Many grey and greying heads were in the line snaking along Rideau and down Nelson Street – the man is 71 – but our friendly invitation had snared four university types. For me, it was perfect. It was youth by proximity. We were with bright young people, and I was able to make up slightly for a mis-spent adolescence where I wasn’t nearly hip enough to “get” the Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and Neil Young that Mr. Hill was playing in English class. (I preferred, as he put it, “group noise”. If you couldn’t do basketball warmup drills to it, I wasn’t too interested.) Youth by retroactivity…

I’m Your Man is not a great documentary, but it does feature a great man. Cohen “had an unfair advantage, in a way,” reports Nick Cave. “He can actually write.” This Aussie-centric tribute to the Man and his Words drove one of my dates (the doer/dancer I’m married to) nuts, though. It was everything she has come to scorn  about musicians. Many of the performers were self-absorbed and fairly inarticulate. (Bono and the Edge from U2, and of course Mr. C. himself, were sparkling exceptions, at least to the charge of verbal clumsiness.) Many seemed marginally talented and were jarring to watch (especially if your taste runs to Judy Garland and The Sound of Music.) And there was certainly a surfeit of clanging camera angles and other visual tricks apparently designed to help us forget that we were watching talking head interviews and some B-list concert performers.

Although he, like several other tribute-bearers, found it (annoyingly!) necessary to have the song lyrics in front of him, Rufus Wainwright takes a star turn here, particularly with his version of “Hallelujah”, which he had by heart.. His sister Martha does less well, threatening to swallow the microphone while she flails, and eating way too many of those beautifully crafted words; Kate (their Mom) and Anna McGarrigle made my young friends squirm with a “weird sisters from Macbeth” sort of vibe. (I like ‘em, though. Maybe it’s nostalgia.) But aside from these visiting Canucks (and fellow Montrealers), the performers in this Australian concert were well under my radar. Several were a little hard to watch, the prince being an androgynous and quite spastic singer called Antony. (When I closed my eyes, though, his unusual voice was quite compelling in a Roy Orbison-esque way. His stage presence was Joe Cocker, only less graceful. Very odd.)

The obscurity and limitations of some of the concert participants were pierced by some lovely performances, especially of “Anthem” by two women (unknown to me) who know and deliver that marvellous song. There were also segments that seemed to come from another film altogether: a sweet little (lip-synched?) performance of “I’m Your Man” by Leonard Cohen with U2 in New York, and quickie hallway testimonials from the Edge and Bono. Huge fans both, they teetered constantly on the cliff of outright worship, particularly Edge with his comments about Leonard “coming down from the mountain carrying the tablets of stone”. They placed his career in a broad and intelligent context, though, and their reverence was nicely cut by Cohen’s own self-deprecation and humour. For only one example, he reads to the interviewer (presumably the director, Lian Lunson) his recent introduction to the Chinese version of his 1960s novel Beautiful Losers, and this address to his readers is a triumph of humility, respect, gentle engagement and rich humour.

If you’re already a fan, I’m Your Man will probably work for you, too. And if you’re open to a little weirdness in your musical life, this might be a fine introduction to the work of Leonard Cohen. It’s worth the two hours, though surveys show that only half the people in my marriage would agree.

[I wrote on another Cohen interview, and songwriting honours for him, here.]