Arts Listings

Moving Pictures: Deconstructing Leonard

By Justin DeFreitas
Friday July 28, 2006

What better way to appreciate and pay tribute to the songs of Leonard Cohen than to watch and listen as a cast of his less talented idolaters walk on stage and butcher them? 

This appears to be the premise of Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man, a documentary that just completed its second week at the Albany Twin. 

I had read several reviews beforehand and had some idea what I was in for. I knew, for instance, that the film consists primarily of footage from a 2005 concert in which musicians, famous and otherwise, performed Cohen’s music; I knew that interviews with Cohen would be interspersed throughout, and that the man himself would not step before the mic until the film’s final moments; and I knew that among those paying tribute to Cohen in interviews would be U2’s Bono, a man who, I’ll admit, inspires in me a wholly irrational degree of hostility. But still, I thought, it’s Leonard Cohen, his words, his music, his life … how bad could it be?  

Ay caramba.  

The musicians involved are apparently incapable of appreciating just exactly what makes Cohen’s music unique. They pay homage to his words, which are indeed the most crucial element of his art, but give not a moment’s thought to how exactly those words work, how they should be delivered to accord them the respect they deserve, or how and why they have endured for decades.  

The performance of those words is an art that these lesser talents have yet to grasp. To put those words across means focusing on them, uttering them, cleanly and crisply, with delicacy but with authority. This is poetry after all, and the words speak for themselves. But these singers and musicians instead do Cohen and us a great disservice by cluttering their performances with affectation: they tremble, they squint, they gesture, they wallow, they quaver, they fidget, they clutch at their hearts. They do not so much feel the words and music as put a great deal of sound and fury into the act of convincing us that they feel the words and music. It’s as if they don’t trust each song to convey to us its greatness, but rather proclaim themselves the arbiters of that greatness, and seek to convince us less enlightened souls that, no, really, this is good stuff and you should pay attention. On the other hand, the film did succeed in sending me right home to listen to Cohen’s original records, if only to purge myself of the memory of these overwrought cover versions.  

The only exceptions are the performances of Rufus Wainwright, whose gleefully silly rendition of “Everybody Knows” demonstrates what every other figure in the film, save Cohen himself, utterly lacks: a sense of humor. Wainwright plays up the campy aspects of the song, emphasizing the wit while also taking great pleasure in letting flow the swirling stream of the song’s dizzying and decadent lyrics.  

Cohen’s humor is on display often in the film’s interview segments as he offers insightful tales and self-deprecating remarks about his life and career. Director Lian Lunson, however, is intent on presenting Cohen with the same sort of hyperbolic grandiosity with which the rest of the cast presents him, even using the absurd device of an echo to repeat some of the singer’s more resonant asides.  

When the dapper minimalist finally takes up the microphone, he puts the musicians and the filmmakers to shame, delivering a perfectly dry, perfectly dignified performance of “Tower of Song.” It’s a welcome sight: the aged man in immaculate suit, holding his glasses in his hand as he stand still and distinguished before a glittering, red curtain. Ah, this is the real deal, this is what we paid for. But then the camera pulls back for one last indignity, revealing the backing band: U2. Yes, Bono, the world’s most prolifically sanctimonious and self-aggrandizing showman, has managed yet again to stamp his wrap-around-shade-clad face on another cultural icon. It’s not enough to testify before the United Nations; not enough to stamp his maudlin mug on the Sept. 11 tribute concert; not enough to contribute a cliché-ridden celebratory montage to the finale of last month’s World Cup. Now he’s got to stake his claim to the legacy of Leonard Cohen.  

But Cohen’s music stands alone. It has endured for decades, despite the man’s infrequent releases and even more infrequent performances. It has withstood the test of time, and it can surely withstand this silly movie, just as surely as it can withstand Bono. 



Directed by Lian Lunson. Featuring Leonard Cohen, U2, Rufus Wainwright, Nick Cave, Linda Thompson and others. 115 minutes.  


Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man stems from a 2005 tribute concert in which a cast of Cohen idolaters covers some of his best-known songs.