Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man

Reviewed By Mel Valentin
Posted 07/14/06 15:32:59

"Doesn't quite do the man or his music justice."
3 stars (Average)

Part concert film, part tribute film, part biography, but all hagiography, Lian Lunson's "Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man" is ultimately less than the sum of its unruly, uneven parts. Structuring a 100 minute tribute to the music and poetry of singer/songwriter/countercultural hero Leonard Cohen, Lunson keeps Cohen songs front and center through a one-night concert performance in Sydney Australia, "Come So Far for Beauty," featuring a veritable who's who of independent and alternative music (with the notable exception of The Edge and Bono from U2), Lunson's celebration of Cohen as an artist, while certainly laudable, offers little insight into Cohen the man, his history, or even his craft.

With Cohen relegated almost exclusively to tight, claustrophobic "talking head" close-ups, Cohen's songbook is given precedence, while Cohen the performer is pushed into the shadows until the finale, where Cohen finally steps into the limelight of a cocktail club in Manhattan to croon one of his signature tunes, "Tower of Song," as a relatively famous rock band offers musical support. As a concert/tribute film, Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man stands or falls, engages or bores, succeeds or fails on the varied performances/interpretations from Cohen's songbook, which range from the passably entertaining to the willfully eccentric and, occasionally, the unimaginatively imitative.

Pride of place goes to singer/songwriter Rufus Wainwright, Both natives of Montreal, Canada, the much younger Wainwright shared a friendship with Cohen's daughter. Wainwright talks about his first visit to the Cohen's home, meeting Leonard in a kitchen while Cohen unselfconsciously attempted to revive a dying bird (we never learn whether Cohen succeeded or not). Wainwright's sister, Martha, a singer/songwriter in her own right, isn't given interview time, but she's onstage, performing with her brother, by herself or with other collaborators. Rufus' first performance is probably his most idiosyncratic, but through two additional performances, Rufus' affectations can't be confused for his obvious affection for Cohen and his music.

Other performers are given less screen time, either in interviews or on stage. From a rather long list of performers, Nick Cave, former frontman for The Birthday Party, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, novelist, and screenwriter (The Proposition), also stands out, mostly for his nostalgic recollection of his youth in a small town in Australia and discovering Cohen's music and, by his own admission, changed by it. Cohen's music gave Cave something to strive for in his musical career, but at the time, it also served to make him feel unique (because only his small circle of friends shared his passion for Cohen). Watching Cave perform one of Cohen's standards also suggests that Cave modeled some part of his performance style on Cohen.

Still others are introduced with either a short interview (often unaccompanied by a reminder of who they are) or none at all. From that large, eclectic group, Teddy Thompson, Antony Hegarty, and Beth Orton give the most memorable performances of Cohen's songs. That's not to say the other performances aren't watchable. Almost all are, and with a large backing band comprised of percussion and strings, Cohen's songs are given an expansive, rich sound that makes even the less inspired performances listenable. Whether any of these performances get us closer to understanding Cohen's appeal to other musicians and wider audiences is debatable. What audiences would probably want is more of Leonard Cohen performing his songs, either solo or in tandem. Sadly, Cohen performs only one song, "Tower of Song," and that's saved for the final performance, filmed in New York City.

But is Cohen's music artful pretension or pretentiously artful? Fans and detractors will obviously have diametrically opposed opinions, but it's certainly difficult to begrudge Cohen the admiration and respect he seems to have garnered from fellow musicians. Bono's admittedly eloquence about what Cohen's music meant and continues to mean to him underscores both the documentary's worshipful, reverential stance toward Cohen (even music critics are nowhere to be seen). Additional context would have been helpful as well, either through explanatory title cards or interviews with Cohen's friends, family, and associates. In short, "Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man" is by and for musicians and their admirers.

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