September 11, 2006

Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man

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The marriage of nostalgia and fresh interpretations of classic songs gives Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man a quality that borders on the ethereal. Elements of the present are incorporated into the music of another generation while contemporary artists reflect on the music of a man collectively referred to as a legend. Clips of home movies and glimpses of personal letters and artwork are spliced together with Cohen’s commentary on his work and life.

The documentary’s series of events and their organization gives multiple perspectives of Cohen’s work. Interviews with contemporary songwriters about Cohen’s influence on their lives and music in addition to Cohen’s musings about his work precede excerpted footage from the “Came So Far for Beauty” concert, in which singers and songwriters paid tribute to Cohen. The concert took place in January 2005 in Sydney, Australia. Performers such as The Handsome Family, Rufus and Martha Wainwright, Nick Cave, Kate McGarrigle and Beth Orton, among other artists came together for an evening to celebrate the music of one man.

The performances attest to the ability of Cohen’s music to endure numerous anddiverse interpretations over the years. The musicians weave Cohen’s music with their individual eccentricities to create simultaneously fresh and familiar experiences in song. Inevitably, some renditions of Cohen’s songs are less enthralling and significantly slow the film’s progress. However, one aspect that gives this film its charm is that Cohen aficionados and those new to his work can relate to some aspect of his music. Cohen’s diverse appeal is confirmed by Cohen’s commentary on his dissatisfaction with his record, “Death of a Ladies’ Man”. In the film, Cohen states that he never felt satisfied with the record, but that it has been well-received by the punk community.

Punctuated by behind-the-scenes interviews and commentary by Cohen himself and other songwriters, the significance and stories behind Cohen’s words and music give greater meaning to the clips of live performances. One case-in-point is “Chelsea Hotel No. 2”. Performed by Rufus Wainwright, this song addresses Cohen’s fleeting involvement with Janis Joplin during his stay at the Chelsea Hotel in New York City. Cohen’s words, coupled with Wainwright’s intonation evoke a wistful longing to return to a time — regardless of how brief — where reality is suspended and raw human connection reigns supreme.

One interesting aspect of the interviews is the difference between contemporary performers’ perspectives of Cohen and his view of himself. Some may criticize the film because it does not show the “darker” and “seedier” side of Cohen and showcase his vices and pitfalls throughout the duration of his career. However, this is not the film’s intention. Even so, Cohen’s self-effacing view of his work and hesitance in referring to himself as an artist or poet only serves as confirmation for the belief that he is both.

Cohen’s memories of his youth and unflinching criticism of his work allow viewers to understand the mastery of craft which arises when the artist makes transcendental connections. Cohen’s attraction to and interest in monastic orders and Zen lifestyles led him to become a student of Roshi, a Zen master. Cohen’s words contain a collective awareness and insight that transcend the concept of the self. Perhaps it is the fact that he never refers to himself as wise or qualifies the statements made about him that makes Cohen so intriguing and sagacious.

At one point during the film, Bono, from U2, states that Cohen “has you at any time in your life.” Spanning generations and genres, Cohen’s music has become a treasure to those fortunate enough to stumble upon it. Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man is a pleasant collaboration of creative minds. The resulting product is a journey through the mind and music of a man whose poetry serves as a voice for a generation. The film shows popular music from a different time when lyrics were brushed with poetry and soaked in meaning. While the film may not appeal to everyone, I would recommend it to artists and those interested in truth and the many paths leading to it.