Take it from one strongly disinclined to enthrone idols: Leonard Cohen is a god. If you want to spend an hour and a half on cloud nine, run right out and rent Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man, a concert film/documentary by Lian Lunson, just released on DVD.
Aficionados will remember the title of this post as the last line of “Famous Blue Raincoat.” Those who are not aficionados are the objects of my intense envy as I imagine what it might be like to hear his music for the first time. This film will not satisfy that interest entirely, as Cohen himself performs only a few songs. Indeed, half the film features performances of his music by an extremely interesting lineup, from Rufus and Martha Wainright to the sublime Antony Hegarty (of Antony & The Johnsons). They performed as part of the “Came So Far For Beauty” tribute concert at the Sydney Opera House in 2005.
Before seeing the film, I found it a stretch to imagine enjoying anyone else’s renditions of Cohen’s songs. To me, his music and lyrics have been ribbons threaded onto the rusty needle of his voice; without it, I imagined them lying limp, an inert tangle. But I was wrong. When I finish writing this, I plan to download Martha Wainright’s “Tower of Song,” The Handsome Family’s “Famous Blue Raincoat” and Beth Orton’s “Sisters of Mercy” (I already own Antony’s transcendent “If It Be Your Will”). None of them quite equal the original, but they are unfailingly interesting and worthwhile in their own right.
The music is great, but it’s the other half of this film that had me riveted: excerpts from an extended interview with Cohen at 71, every word so packed with intentionality you can almost see each one crack like a robin’s egg as its meaning emerges and takes flight. The meta-message of L. Cohen’s philosophy at three score and ten is this: the more he has let go of ideas about himself, the more he was able to enter into the pleasure of living. Some of this letting go seems to be the product of Zen study. Cohen says of his teacher: “He liked me for who I was. Or maybe it was that he didn’t like me for who I was. And, around him, the less I was like who I was, the better I liked it.”
I have been trying to think whether it is Cohen’s lifelong obsession with beauty that pulls me so strongly, or the rock-steady beat of his self-understanding as a “worker in song” (his amazingly revealing rubric). Or just the timbre of his voice in middle age. But “I’m Your Man”—a suspension bridge of declarations to the object of his desire, proclaiming his utter willingness to be whatever she wishes and thereby, his unshakeable perch on the ground of being—has to be the most erotic song, ever.
The film itself is nothing special as a cinematic object, but as a vehicle for Cohen’s words, divine. It is worth watching if only for a single scene of Cohen reading aloud the preface to a Chinese version of his 1966 novel, Beautiful Losers (the title might be taken for the leitmotif of his life’s work). The preface is a tour-de-force of extravagant, courtly modesty, seduction by humility, as unstable in its contradictions as a tapestry being woven at one end while it unravels at the other.
Sincerely, A. Goldbard