East Bay View (a blog about several things)

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Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Leonard Cohen down in the depths on the -10th floor

The best Leonard Cohen movie is always going to be McCabe and Mrs. Miller. As you might have gathered, a disproportionate number of my favourite movies are snowy, and the opening of McCabe, with Warren Beatty riding along to "The Stranger Song", is the most existentially spooky scene in any of them. But the danger of nominating this as the ideal Cohen is that it doesn't capture his wit (the same applies to Altman), and that's a weakness of the doc Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man. When you need Bono, of all people, to point out that Leonard is actually quite funny, you're in danger of missing the point.

Director Lian Lunson expends too much effort on un-Leonard flourishes like echoes and overlaps, and not enough on focusing her super-closeups, but this doesn't matter much, given that we get to see the man himself speak so straightforwardly about his life and work and Janis Joplin making an exception for him. You can see why she did: his modesty is so disarming and alluring that the live performances, from a tribute concert at the Sydney Opera House last year, are a comedown. The old pro folkies, notably most of the McGarrigle clan, know that Cohen songs aren't meant to be oversung, but when Rufus Wainwright, for instance, holds back on "Hallelujah" he sounds wrong. On the other hand, Antony, of Johnsons fame, takes on "If It Be Your Will" and pummels it lovingly enough to make me reconsider my previously low opinion of him.

It's easier to impress when you have choice material, but for Cohen singing can never again come easily: he did remarkable things with what voice he had, but even that's gone now. So his pick when he finally finally does sing, "Tower of Song", reveals itself as especially canny when he gets to "I was born with the gift of a golden voice". Not only is it his funniest song, it also has that modesty we were talking about, as he places himself a hundred floors below Hank Williams in said tower. They should be on the same floor, for Hank's sake, not Leonard's.


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