For decades Cohen’s music has been misrepresented as the soundtrack to suicide. In fact the old (now 73) groaner is something of a comedian, though his wit is so dry it’s taken non-aficionados decades to catch on. He’s also something of a master of self-mythology, the sort of performer who seems to back into the spotlight rather than seek it out. His albums have titles such as Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967), Songs from a Room (1969) and Recent Songs (2001), this austerity matched in real life by his decision to become a Buddhist and the subsequent five years he spent in seclusion from 1994 to 1999. In fact Cohen’s recent higher profile and workrate seems to be more down to necessity – his manager ran off with his pension – than a desire for the spotlight.
So much for the mythology. Lian Lunson’s documentary doesn’t mention Cohen’s financial woes, and is to some extent a missed opportunity to get an inside glimpse at the man himself. What we get instead is a lot of cool cats – Rufus and Martha Wainwright, Jarvis Cocker, Nick Cave, Teddy Thompson, Beth Orton – singing Cohen songs and eulogising him, interspersed with an interview with the hipster’s hipster that again doesn’t want to go too far beyond fanboy idolatry. However, Mr Cohen is a an old hand, and gives good interview, even when it’s not asked of him. So he tells a series of stories that are as dry and impish as his songs. Of the real Suzanne, immortalised in his song of the same name, how she was the wife of a friend and how she did indeed feed him tea and oranges but no, he didn’t touch her perfect body with his mind.
Lunson keeps the camera discreet as various Wainwrights, Thompsons and McGarrigles line up to perform, and offers the visual equivalent of their interpretations. Nick Cave gets the lion’s share – his balladeering growl a good match for Cohen’s laments – while surprises include Rufus Wainwright and Antony (of the Johnsons fame), whose more operatic swoops you wouldn’t naturally expect to be a match at all.
It’s left to U2 to close the show, duetting Tower of Song with Mr C himself – who effortlessly outcools them – before he brings the curtain down with I’m Your Man.
All in all a respectful rather than revelatory tribute. Nothing wrong with that. Leonard Cohen wears it well.
© Steve Morrissey 2006