Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man

| May 24, 2006

Think of Leonard Cohen. Now think of Mel Gibson. Now imagine what kind of bridge might link these two distinctly, uh, unique personality’s together. Well, Mel is one of the producers of Lian Lunson’s documentary “I’m Your Man” an absorbing and affectionate look at the work and history of one of our great contemporary poets and musicians, Leonard Cohen.
In 2005 Hal Wilner produced a concert in Sydney Australia bringing together a group of extraordinary musicians to pay tribute to this critically acclaimed musician and master of the written word. Ms. Lunson documented the event and returned to Los Angeles to interview Leonard in his home. The movie artfully weaves in and out of the concert, interviews with everyone involved and great footage of childhood home movies, photos and self-made art all from Leonard’s archives.
Leonard and his work have inspired loving devotion from serious critics, pop icons, literary elitists and any woman he has ever bothered to say hello to. He was born in Montreal in 1934 and formed his first band, a country and western trio called the Buckskin Boys, when he was 17. At 22 he published his first collection of poetry “Lets Compare Mythologies” and over the next seven years traveled through Europe spending most of his time on Hydra with Marianne Jensen and her son Axel. During this time he wrote and published two books, “The Favorite Game” and “Beautiful Losers”, which made him a household word in every respectable bohemian, hipster digs. But something larger called. Intent on pursuing a musical career he made his way to Nashville and onto one of the definitive 60’s albums “In My Life” by Judy Collins who covered “Suzanne” and “Dress Rehearsal Rag”. In ’67 he appeared at the Newport Jazz Festival and was picked up by the great John Hammond, an A&R man from Columbia records (who had brought Springsteen, Dylan and Billie Holiday to the label). Leonard went on to release his first album, another 60’s icon “The Songs of Leonard Cohen” which included four Cohen Classics, “Suzanne,” “So Long Marianne,” “Sisters of Mercy” and “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye”. The album easily placed him in the starry pantheon of one of the great musical decades of the 20th century.
In the perfect song, music and lyrics come together with such precise intelligence that they seem to sing the singer. Leonard achieves this time and again. His work articulates the complex reality of the timeless moments between men and women, humanity and Spirit. Each tune is crafted to its own unique reason for being so you can have an old European waltz, a mariachi sound, a rousing call to arms all in the same recording. I imagine the reason his work seems to spawn so many tributes is that the poetry is not only beautiful and richly crafted but the music is so much fun to sing. I believe Jennifer Warren’s tribute album was the first, followed by “I’m Your Fan” with REM, John Cale, Nick Cave and others and now the “I’m Your Man” concert of this film. It starts off with a rousing shout out to the ladies by Nick Cave as he insists, “I’m Your Man”. Antony lets fly with a particularly touching version of “If It Be Your Will” The McGarrigle sisters make a welcome appearance with “Winter Lady” and team up later with the adorable Rufus Wainright and his sis Martha Wainwright for “Everybody Knows”. Beth Orton, Teddy Thompson, Jarvis Cocker, Joan Wasser, Perla Batalla and Julie Christenson all bring Leonard’s music to rousing life. Bono and U2 join Leonard in the end for a tough, smooth talking “Tower of Song” All of these musicians talk about the effect of Leonard’s words and music and share entertaining stories about him but the most interesting interviews of course are with Leonard. We get to witness his famous modesty, droll observations and insightful perceptions about the music, his life and his famous spiritual journey (he is an ordained Zen Buddhist monk).
Curiously for one so well known for his love of women, there is no information about his relationships or interviews with any of the important women in his life and this does feel missed. But I might guess that Leonard’s courtly approach to these matters would not allow him to impose on the ladies in such a manner.
He has withstood the test of time and, even more difficult, the fickleness of the music industry and this film will satisfy the interest of anyone wanting to experience the spirit of this remarkable talent. As Mel Gibson observes with surprising poetic insight “Leonard Cohen has spent a life seeking purity of expression. He has humbled himself, shunning the superfluous distractions of the material to venture naked and open of heart into that dark night of the soul; to return then with his words, a Sherpa from the depths, bearing missives that tell of the indefinable.”

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