I want to get this out at the beginning: if you are a fan of Leonard Cohen’s music, and a film about Cohen contains said music, it’s really hard to screw it up. Meaning, going into the film, I was biased to believe that even if it was 90 minutes of dogs humping pinecones, as long as the soundtrack was comprised entirely of Leonard Cohen’s songs, I wouldn’t be too upset.
“Leonard Cohen I’m Your Man” is an autobiography / concert film of incredible ambition. While performers like Nick Cave, Rufus and Martha Wainwright, Antony, and Beth Orton offer their live renditions of Cohen’s music (filmed during the “Came So Far for Beauty” tribute shows), Cohen himself reflects on his life and the songs that grew out if it. Stating that he has never been one for regret or self-praise, Cohen assures that those elements are happily missing from the film. Of course, he can’t stop others from praising him, and the film offers us the perspective of the varied performers as they state how Leonard began a part of their lives, musically or otherwise.
And luckily, there were no dogs humping pinecones. Instead we get an intimate (though paradoxically vague) portrait of a man who has been many things in his life, not the least have been his accomplishments as a poet and songwriter. As the film unfolds, we are greeted with not only the beauty of his music, but his own philosophical beliefs and ideals that lead him to craft such amazing songs.
That’s what I mean by the film being intimate, though paradoxically vague. You feel like you know Leonard so well by following the artful honesty of his songs, and when you couple that with his own commentary (as skillful in the English language and as well-crafted as anything the man has ever laid to professional paper), it seems to paint a full picture. But in reflection, it’s only the broad strokes, only the bits he wants you to know, keeping the mystery, as well as the seduction, alive.
On a technical level, the film has a few flaws, most obvious the use of transitional elements that should help the film have a constant current but instead offer a distraction. Red-sequins slowly fading in and out during songs, a low rumble of sound before Cohen starts to speak, the constant use of slow motion for the end of performances… as I first began watching it, I thought it had a bit of the Academy Awards obituary clip feel to it. Especially when the beginning involves “Waiting for the Miracle” playing as the performers are introduced in slow-motion black and white.
The performances in the film are soul-saving. Rufus Wainwright carries the heaviest load, appearing on more than one song, most notably his cabaret-style rendition of “Everybody Knows” and his, admitted, consistently performed “Hallelujah.” But the true revelation in the film is Antony from Antony and Johnsons performing “If It Be Your Will.” Standing awkwardly on stage, dressed in a kind of ripped fish-net shirt, face contorting uncomfortably, Antony at once owns and elevates the song to a new level. Add to that the reflections of Cohen concerning his own dealings and feelings on the definition of beauty, and you have this moment in the film that is philosophically explosive, consoling and personal-perspective challenging. Sadly the only performance that feels out of place is Cohen’s own, backed by U2. Filmed in a cramped set, sound mastered so well that it’s obvious Cohen is lip-syncing (taking away from the rawness of the rest of the film’s live acts) and including a background sound that is, yes, very-much U2… it feels wrong, like it would be a great DVD extra, but in the context of the film, though as it unfolds you want to see Leonard perform a song or five, it’s an awkward pit-stop.
In the end, where the film succeeds the most is that it doesn’t just ride on the laurels of Cohen’s work, it doesn’t go the lazy route.
Cohen’s songs have always had a epic quality (“Anthem” for the most obvious), and going in I couldn’t imagine there being any way to elevate them higher… but the film does. As the performers unload into the songs and Cohen book-ends the performances with his thoughts, the epics become even more epic. There’s more legend to follow now. And I’m still not sure if half the legend that has been created by this film is real, or just Cohen seducing me all over again.
If you’re not a fan of Cohen’s work, as I know many folks can’t seem to get into his voice (despite it being so soulful that he could read a phone book and I’d find a reason to live in it, but I digress) this film is the perfect way to introduce yourself to the music again. This film is an opportunity, period.