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July 19-25, 2006

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'Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man'

Photograph by Brit Marling
Cool as a Lizard: Leonard Cohen (left) poses mysteriously with an unnamed burlesque dancer and Bono for 'I'm Your Man.'

Monk of Doom

Songs of love, hate and a few of self-promotion fill 'Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man'

By Richard von Busack

SUZANNE was the wife of a friend. The "tea ... that came all the way from China" was ordinary Constant Comment. And "Our Lady of the Harbour" still stands; it's better known as the chapel of Notre-Dame-de-Bonsecours in Montreal, at 400 St-Paul St. East. Time unlocks most mysteries, even the most tantalizing literary ones. Yet the documentary Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man only reveals as much as Cohen wants it to. On-camera, the dapper old man has the tortoisey silence of a late-period Al Pacino mobster. The film mixes music and interviews with enthusiastic tributes to Cohen from the members of U2; Bono says of Cohen, "This is our Byron," and he gets more fulsome than that even.

The documentary is derived from a Cohen tribute show; the performances are intercut with the talking heads. Home movies show the singer/songwriter's prosperous childhood in Quebec. He was the son of a man in the clothing trade, who died when his son was 9. The dandyish Cohen moved into Montreal's beatnik poetry enclave, a scathing criticism/self-criticism scene that toughed him in preparation for his migration to New York. Cohen took with him the darkness of Montreal—that lowering, stultifying sense of guilt so tangible in the background of Hitchcock's I Confess. Cohen's need for spiritual guidance ended in a stint as a Zen monk.

Cohen is one strange songbird, half-peacock, half-raven. In the concert scenes, Nick Cave displays something like Cohen's deep, dark monotone, but his Elvisoid kicks, open-necked suit and choice of material (the title song, "I'm Your Man") serves up unwelcome memories of Neil Diamond. Although Perla Batalla's cover of "Suzanne" can't touch Fairport Convention's redo, it's the female spirit that helps leaven Cohen's starless and bible-black music. The female performers bring some treble to the man's unwavering bass.

Aside from Cave, the regulars in the concert footage are the McGarrigle sisters and Rufus and Martha Wainwright (the offspring of Martha McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright). The showstopper is Martha's version of "The Traitor." Against a background of plucked guitar and accordion, Martha hunches over the microphone like a crone, telling out the ballad with a Patsy Cline-level of heartbreak and quaver. Two male performers also get into their feminine side. The incredible white soul singer Antony, clad in the shroudlike ruins of what once was a sweater, does Cohen's "If It Be Your Will." They used to say of Sinatra that he sang in the tones of a trumpet; Antony's saxophone-solo voice polishes this gospel gem.

Adorned in a rhinestone necklace, Rufus Wainwright flirts his way through the bad-news-is-coming "Everybody Knows," interpreting the song of doom as a Weimar tango. This may even be better than Wainwright's by-now-patented cover of "Hallelujah," which is also performed here. Remember how the song provided the downbeat counterpoint to the scintillation of the first Shrek?

So Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man is sometimes flabbergasting, sometimes irritating, and the mix is almost inseparable. Still, wait for the finale, which features Cohen performing his own material with U2 as a backup band. His lizardly cool still persists; he obviously has a few more enigmas left to puzzle future generations.

Movie Times Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man (PG-13; 104 min.), a documentary by Lian Lunson, opens July 21 at Camera 12 in San Jose.

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