Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye
By Danielle McCarthy
Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man
Dir. Lian Lunson, U.S., Lions Gate
Don’t be fooled by the promising title of Lian Lunson’s dull documentary/tribute concert—Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man is all about the admirers, namely the brown-nosing Bono and The Edge from U2 and Rufus Wainwright, whose diva-like antics increasingly seem better suited to an episode of America’s Next Top Model. Lunson’s film features performances by Nick Cave, Beth Orton. Antony (from Antony & the Johnsons), Rufus and Martha Wainwright, Jarvis Cocker, and Kate and Anna McGarrigle at the 2005 “Came So Far for Beauty” tribute concert to Leonard Cohen at the Sydney Opera House. Interspersed between the nearly uncut performances are interviews with Cohen that very superficially cover the surface of his nearly 40-decade career.
The covers of Cohen’s songs by the likes of Wainwright and Cave are boring at best and nearly unwatchable at worst—one particular moment, when Wainwright’s big finale gets cut off briefly by a back-up singer, the extreme close up on his face showcasing the not-so-subtle daggers in his eyes, reveals the enormous egos involved in this supposed tribute. But seriously, why isn’t Leonard Cohen onstage himself, performing his own songs rather than these self-serving, insufferable egomaniacs? For most of the running time all we get are glimpses of the master, inexplicably foreshadowed as a splash of pink sequins that decorate the stage during Cohen’s odd climactic performance with U2 at New York City’s burlesque performance space, the Slipper Room.
Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man is overwhelmingly focused on the concert footage—most of the songs are shown in their entirety with embarrassing slow-motion effects and abstract close-ups on performers’ faces. So often during the film I longed to return to the interviews with Cohen, yet another inferior performance would always start right up. There’s an inherent effect of diminishing returns in the tribute format—let’s face it, these are mostly inferior versions of beloved songs, geared towards impressionable younger people unacquainted with the work of Leonard Cohen who would find it interesting that Bono is so enthusiastic about this old dude’s music. But in the end, it means nothing. The documentary interviews and footage of Cohen are cursory at best, providing little substance to the man’s legend. The interviews touch on his beginnings as a poet, his musical career, and subsequent years as a monk, but the film never digs underneath the surface of Cohen’s complex being. Instead, what we get is sanctified, unchallenging; a form of hallowed worship that plays as though its subject is already dead.
At the end of the film, when finally Cohen performs, in the Slipper Room, one of his most famous numbers, “Tower of Song,” the sheer power of his very presence is startling. The deepness and darkness of his voice is almost enough to negate the inferior performances of the previous 90 minutes. That is, until we notice that the sheepishly respectful U2 are performing as his back-up band. I suppose the choice of the performance space is an allusion to Cohen’s “Death of a Ladies’ Man” image, but it comes across as awkward and forced. To hear Cohen perform his classic song against a backdrop of faux debauchery is almost an insult to his legacy. It’s the celebrity theme-park approach to honoring the man—rather than allowing the man to just do what he has done for the last 40 years, letting the music speak for itself, there has to be this highly staged “meeting of the minds” to facilely connect it all. If only the rest of Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man could be like the first few lines of “Tower of Song.” Cohen’s trancelike presence, his engulfing voice and beautiful, knowing words and music should have been the main attraction. Instead we get these craven imitators trying to outdo one another. Cohen’s performance at the end of the film is all the comeuppance one could wish for.