Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man

A brief comment, if I may, about Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man. What’s to discuss? For starters, you may be surprised to learn that this fawning portrait of an arty, intellectual Jew was produced by Mel Gibson. I’ll bet I can guess what you’re thinking: Who knew he had such impeccable taste? Of course the presentation shows a characteristically Gibsonian dearth of subtlety or cinematic fluency, but I’d just as soon blame Cohen for that as I would old Mel (let alone the director, Lian Lunson): The fact is, any Leonard Cohen documentary automatically risks inelegance by contrast to its subject’s artistic example. But here’s the flip side of that coin: Cohen is so good that even an untimely, mediocre movie about him–in which he barely performs any of his own music–is going to resonate, and this one does. So points for bravery, all around.

Lunson presents her film as the sort of banquet feast at which there is no concession toward special dietary requirements, nor any effort even to dignify the idea that someone might find the main course unpalatable. The essential ingredient (if too-sparely used) is an intimate interview with Cohen himself, narrating a few stories about his life and his creative process. The gravy is the varied group of Cohen appreciators–Nick Cave, Antony, Rufus and Martha Wainwright, among others–who, last year, assembled for a tribute show in Sydney to sing his praises and his songs. The mystery spice is the pleasure to be had from witnessing Bono as humbled fan-boy.

Although I’m Your Man tends to stutter with awe (a common enough response to the Cohen catalogue), Lunson has no trouble revealing the classy songwriter for what he is: a yearning heart, an active mind and a genuine article. Did we really need to be reminded? Turn on a radio and get a load of what’s on the air these days. You tell me.

It appears that many inexhaustible astonishments still lurk within Cohen’s songs. It’s amazing, for example, how well these work in other voices and manners, and how relaxed even the most revering performers are in taking them on. That must owe to the songs’ great architecture: the nimble interplay between Cohen’s lapidary lyrics (sometimes, he says, it takes years to get them right) and the simple grace of his music. Simple is not to say plain-even the most resolute of Cohen’s cadences ring with some kind of naked uncertainty, and if that doesn’t move you, I wonder if anything will. Some clues to this mystery surface in Lunson’s interview with Cohen, particularly in the funny sincerity of his self-deprecations. “My reputation as a ladies’ man was a joke,” he intones at one point. “It caused me to laugh bitterly at the 10,000 nights I spent alone.”

There is also the matter, frankly, of his Canadianness. It comes through most appealingly, not just in Cohen’s elegant line drawings of Montreal streetscapes and faces, but in his occasional wry and pithy reflections. “When I came to New York, I thought, ‘This is almost as good as Montreal,'” he says. He sums up the personality of the place with an astute comparative analysis of its folk-music scene: “They were trying to get ahead. In Canada we’re trained to think more modestly.”

Cohen says that a lot of his songs are responses to beauty. It shows. They are considered responses and, as it happens, they are often beautiful. The recognition that beauty demands an answer is Lunson’s reason for making the movie, and it’s a good reason for making any movie.

Lunson’s punctuation, usually accomplished by dissolving inter-cuts of grainy black-and-white footage over the interviews and performances, seems like a nervous tic-a mere capitulation to received ideas about how documentaries (or perhaps music videos) should work. But the inspiration must be Cohen’s own knack for mingling the magisterial with the quotidian and, in any case, the clumsiness is forgiven by Cohen’s allowance that his own striving for sensualism includes many missteps.

The movie has prompted some snarky reviews and I wonder if a portion of the snark comes from reviewers resenting the impossible task of writing eloquently about an eloquent subject on very short notice. For Christ’s sake, it’s hard enough to make a documentary about the guy, let alone to review one. But thanks to I’m Your Man, it’s easy enough–and appropriate–to rediscover him.