Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man - Movie Review

  • 05 July 2006

Rating: 2 out of 5

Here's a prime example of what happens when fascinating subject matter falls prey to inept filmmaking. Lian Lunson's Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man is a frustrating mess, redeemed intermittently by a few solid musical performances and by the towering, erudite presence of Cohen himself.

Much of Lunson's tribute to the legendary songsmith is taken up by a 2005 concert featuring a lineup of international folk and pop artists honoring Cohen's music. I don't claim a close familiarity with Cohen's music, but it doesn't take an aficionado of it to figure out that several of the performances are overwrought, shrill, or just plain boring. Rufus Wainwright's nasally crooning and vamping reduce the wry humor of "Everybody Knows" and "Chelsea Hotel #2" into fey cabaret numbers. Elsewhere, Nick Cave's version of "I'm Your Man" by way of a Vegas lounge act deadens the senses, and Jarvis Cocker's stiffly delivered "Death Of a Ladies' Man" is god-awful. Aside from the default pleasure taken in knowing that you're hearing one of Cohen's songs, this is disposable material. All of it, that is, with the exception of Teddy Thompson's version of "Tonight Will Be Fine," ANTONY HEGARTY's "If It Be Your Will," and Martha Wainwright's "The Traitor": Three performances that achieve the grace and soulful resonance of Cohen's music, so devoid in the rest of Lunson's documentary.

Cohen's lyrics have a stealthy, haunting eloquence carried along by the storm clouds of his signature, brooding voice. But concert producer, Hal Willner, bleeds all the darkness and enigma out of Cohen's work and buffs it up with a backing orchestra and an overproduced slickness worthy of a VH1 special. Lunson's filming of the concert too is rife with irony because the documentary-maker, according to the press notes, wanted to avoid making a "Leonard Cohen: Behind the Music." Yet this is precisely the effect of watching her conventionally shot, softly lit concert footage.

Lunson intersperses the concert numbers with testimonials from its performers, each reflecting on what Cohen's music has meant to him or her. And sticking out like superstar-sore thumbs from this repertoire of indie acts are Bono and The Edge, spilling one platitude after another about the religiosity and sensuality in Cohen's lyrics, etc. If it weren't for Lunson's interviews with Cohen himself, in which he expounds on the themes in his music, the milestones in his career, and his roots in the Beat-era Montreal poetry scene, this film might've been dismissed as a monotonous panegyric.

True, Cohen's work deserves great praise, but Lunson ignores, forgets, or is artistically incapable of understanding that, even in a tribute movie, a critical perspective is needed by which we, as viewers, can gain a personal vantage on the subject. At a loss for incisive content, she resorts to sweetening her footage with jejune optical and sound effects: Overlays of flickering red circles, unnerving echoes and hisses, digitally sped up/slowed down images, images and sounds in reverse, all of which are meant to convey a dreamlike effect, but instead feel tiresome and amateurish. Indeed, if I didn't know any better, I'm Your Man would seem like the product of an undergraduate film student who had access to way too many bells and whistles, but no personal voice.

Never in I'm Your Man does a rounded representation of Cohen, the life-weary artist and spiritual seeker, come into relief. We get some interesting autobiographical reflections from Cohen himself and a moment wherein he reads aloud from a preface to one of his novels that's a pure pleasure to experience. But these stand outside Lunson's filmmaking, which sorely lacks a point of view, a sense of searching beneath what are merely facts and rosy impressions to become an intelligent inquiry into Cohen's creative spirit.

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Image caption Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man

Facts and Figures

Year: 2006

Run time: 105 mins

In Theaters: Friday 8th September 2006

Box Office USA: $0.8M

Distributed by: Lionsgate

Production compaines: Horse Pictures, Lionsgate, Sundance Channel, Con Artists Productions


Contactmusic.com: 2 / 5

Rotten Tomatoes: 69%
Fresh: 52 Rotten: 23

IMDB: 6.9 / 10

Cast & Crew

Director: Lian Lunson

Producer: Mel Gibson, Lian Lunson, Bruce Davey

Starring: Leonard Cohen as Himself, Martha Wainwright as Herself, Rufus Wainwright as Himself, Beth Orton as Herself, Jarvis Cocker as Himself, Bono as Himself, The Edge as Himself, Nick Cave as Himself

Also starring: Adam Clayton, ANTONY HEGARTY, Kate Mcgarrigle, Teddy Thompson, Mel Gibson, Bruce Davey