Fri, Sep 22, 2006 - Page 17 News List

Buildinga tower of song

By Stephen Holden  /  NY TIMES SERVICE , NEW YORK

He's your man.

PHOTO COURTESY OF CROWN FILMS

When Leonard Cohen speaks, the elevated cadences of language are strewn with poetic images so precisely articulated in a rumbling bass-baritone voice that they all but erase the distinction between his song lyrics and personal conversation. Each word is carefully chosen and pronounced with oratorical flourish. Even when his sepulchral drone isn’t bending itself around a melody, its sound is musical.

Here is one sample of his conversational style, from Lian Lunson’s wonderful documentary portrait, Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man. Reflecting on the inspiration for his song The Traitor, he muses that it is about “failing or betraying some mission you were mandated to fulfill and being unable to fulfill it and then coming to understand that the real mandate was not to fulfill it but to stand guiltless in the predicament in which you found yourself.”

If a strain of gallows humor didn’t underlie many of Cohen’s pronouncements, such observations might sound insufferably pretentious. But he continually undercuts his own solemnity. Here is he is on his own mystique as a silver-tongued Casanova: “My reputation as a ladies’ man was a joke. It caused me to laugh bitterly the 10,000 nights I spent alone.”

Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man combines pieces of an extended interview with this Canadian singer-songwriter, poet and author, now 71, with a tribute concert organized by Hal Willner at the Sydney Opera House in January 2005. Titled Came So Far for Beauty (after a Cohen song), the event featured performances of many of Cohen’s best-known songs by Nick Cave, Rufus Wainwright, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Martha Wainwright and Antony (of Antony and the Johnsons), among others.

Film Notes

Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man

Directed by: Lian Lunson

Music by: Leonard Cohen

Performed: by Nick Cave, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Rufus Wainwright, Martha Wainwright, Antony, Linda Thompson, the Handsome Family, Beth Orton, Teddy Thompson, Jarvis Cocker, Perla Batalla, Julie Christensen, Joan Wasser, U2

Running time: 104 minutes.

Taiwan release: Today


Some of the performers offer pungent personal comments. Cave recalls discovering Cohen’s Songs of Love and Hate album while living in a remote Australian town and suddenly “feeling like the coolest person in the world because it separated me from everyone and everything I detested.”

Bono and Edge from U2, who did not participate in the Sydney event, offer extravagant tributes and near the end of the film are shown accompanying Cohen in a New York club performance of Tower of Song. Edge likens him to “the man coming down from the mountaintop with tablets of stone having been up there talking to the angels.”

Bono observes, “As dark as he gets, you still sense that beauty is truth.”

Wainwright, who performs more songs than any other guest, sings Everybody Knows, Chelsea Hotel No. 2 (Cohen’s self-deprecating and indiscreet reminiscence of a sexual encounter with Janis Joplin), and Hallelujah (the Cohen song Wainwright and Jeff Buckley have made something of a downtown standard).

Two of the other more memorable performances come from Antony, who cries out If It Be Your Will in an eerie, shivering falsetto, and Teddy Thompson (son of Richard and Linda), who stamps the more obscure Cohen song Tonight Will Be Fine with the concert’s most intense vocal.

Reflecting on his life and work, Cohen recalls first encountering poetry in the Jewish liturgy at a synagogue. Some of his more recent recollections are of a purgative sojourn in a Zen monastery during the 1990’s on Mount Baldy, where he studied with a Japanese Zen master.

But a Zen-like austerity has always been present in his writing. A Zen spirit also informs his modest self-assessment of his life’s work.

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