October 30, 2006 -- “Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man” is a musical tribute to the poetic songwriter considered to be one of the greatest of the last century. The documentary is equal parts concert film and interview footage with Cohen and other musicians, producers and writers. Notable interview footage includes Bono and Edge of U2 (who also perform in the film) and singer Rufus Wainwright, who also performs several songs in concert, including the one he is best known for, “Hallelujah,” which can be heard on the Shrek soundtrack CD.
While the interview footage with Cohen reveals something of this mysterious artist, the concert performances (the concert was performed at the famed Sydney Opera House) are hit and miss. Several performers mispronounce the lyrics so badly it is very hard to understand what words they are singing. Evidently they were unable to deal with the fact that this concert was supposed to be a tribute to Cohen, not a showcase for their dubious vocal manipulations of his lyrics. The Cohen lyrics, of course, are what sets his songs apart from most other singer-songwriters. Either the performers should have been better vetted for their pronunciation skills, or subtitles should have been added so the audience members who haven't memorized all the Cohen lyrics can figure out what words are allegedly being sung. Maybe when the DVD of this film comes out it will have subtitles or closed captions to address this issue. That being said, there are some good stage performances in the film with good musical backing for the singers, including a guy playing a saw, which lent a decidedly odd note to the proceedings.
Probably the best performance of the concert was Antony Hegarty's soaring rendition of “If It Be Your Will.” I've never heard Hegarty sing before, but this guy has serious pipes. His emotional and vocal ranges are reminiscent of the legendary Roy Orbison. The rest of the concert ranged from O.K. to awful, with some truly overwrought, unintelligible performances. Among the better also-ran performances were by Rufus (“Hallelujah”) and Martha Wainwright (“The Traitor”), Perla Batalla (“Bird on a Wire”) and Teddy Thompsen's version of “Tonight Will Be All Right.” The film is highlighted by a performance by Cohen himself, backed by U2 (which makes a pretty good little backup band) singing “Tower Of Song.” I would have liked more of Cohen's singing and less of that overwrought caterwauling. The film's title song, “I'm Your Man,” is sung by Nick Cave, who sounds a bit like Cohen himself.
The interview footage of Cohen appeared to be a grab-bag of old and contemporary stuff. Some of the images were provided by Cohen himself and others come from various archives. The contemporary interviews are good, with Cohen providing a bit of explanation about his mind-set and some background on some lyrics, including those of his best-known song, “Suzanne.” Cohen's religious background (Jewish and Zen-Buddhist) is explored in the film. Religious references are plentiful in Cohen's songs, such as in “Suzanne” which features the lyrics, “Jesus was a sailor / when he walked upon the water / and he spent a long time watching / from his lonely wooden tower.” Like all good poetry, Cohen's lyrics are endlessly applicable to current events. What better way to sum up America's ill-fated course during the last five years than Cohen's “Everybody Knows,” which includes the words, “Everybody knows that the war is over / Everybody knows the good guys lost / Everybody knows the fight was fixed / The poor stay poor, the rich get rich / That's how it goes / Everybody knows / Everybody knows that the boat is leaking / Everybody knows that the captain lied / Everybody's got this broken feeling / Like their father or their dog just died.”
From bleak lyrics like this you get the distinct impression that Leonard Cohen is a glass is half empty kind of guy, despite all the success he's had in his life and all the accolades he's received for his outstanding body of work. This dichotomy between his professional success and his personal darkness remains a mystery. The film barely touches the surface of Cohen, except to indicate there is hollow loneliness there, despite his reputation as a lady's man. This is not a satisfying film in that it leaves you with a lot more questions than answers. Cohen himself remains as elusive as ever. It is also far from being a great concert film. Maybe the filmmakers could never really decide where they wanted to go with this project. If you are a Cohen fan, as I am, it is still a film worth seeing. This film rates a C+.
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