Avoid This Waltz

Avoid This Waltz

If you’re a Leonard Cohen fan, don’t subject yourself to Lian Lunson’s Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man.The film’s ill-conceived attempt at fusing a concert film with a tepid hagiography will make your heart sick. If you have never really given the songwriter’s music a fair shake, there’s nothing in this film that will ever inspire you to do so.

I grew up with the music of Leonard Cohen. When I was 12 years-old, my father gave me a copy of the Songs of Leonard Cohen. I spent the rest of that summer eating Chinese oranges with this feather-lipped vision in the recesses of my mind. There was a brief time, somewhere around then, when Mr. Cohen even convinced me that I would live the life of a poet—that I would spend my days wooing and writing, getting head in the Chelsea Hotel and then writing experimental novels about native mystics. Those days may be gone, but they and the music and poetry that inspired them, have most definitely left their mark. All of which made watching this clubfooted flick such a drag.

Lunson’s inspiration isn’t that clear, but it seems she wanted to use the 2005 Came So Far for Beauty tribute to Cohen at the Sydney Opera House as a means of exploring the man’s enduring influence and troubled life. In her defense, the concert, whose footage makes up the majority of the film, does feature some incredible talent. Beth Orton, Antony (of Antony and the Johnsons), Jarvis Cocker, Rufus and Martha Wainwright all perform. (As does Nick Cave but he badly blows Cohen’s “I’m Your Man” in the opening sequence). However, that concert footage completely obscures the film’s real subject. Apart from a few exceptions, Cohen’s lyrics (which are starkly rendered in his own performances of them) are tarted up and lost in most of the film’s performances. To make matters worse, the performers (especially Rufus Wainwright and Cave) haven’t even bothered to memorize the words.

When Lunson clunkily cuts away from the concert footage (always slowing down the image of a departing performer and then fading in and out of a dark background dappled with the cheesy reflections of red stage lights) , we’re forced to endure the empty sermonizing of a long-line of performers. (According to Bono, Cohen is “like Keats, or Shelley, or Byron,” a comparison that reveals nothing aside from the fact the U2 frontman attended his grade 11 Romantics class).

I would have been more than happy to sit through a whole film of nothing but Cohen speaking about his life and work, but when we do finally get to see and hear Cohen himself talk, it’s exceedingly brief. Speaking about “The Traitor,” a song beautifully rendered by Martha Wainwright in the show, Cohen provides a wonderful distillation of the song’s underlying message. At other times, he speaks about his love for suits and the first poem he ever wrote: a brief prayer he placed in one of his recently deceased father’s bow ties before burying it in the backyard. The best moment is when Cohen reads the self-deprecating foreword to the Chinese edition of Beautiful Losers—in which he describes the novel as “more of a sunstroke than a book.”

Lunson clearly found Cohen at a time when he was unsure about performing publicly. Thanks to recent financial troubles, he is back on the road with a new book of poems and an album slated for later in the year. Was the film an attempt to convince Cohen to return to the stage? If so, why did it need to be based around that one show in Sydney (where many artists seem not to have had enough time to nail down the lyrics)? A thousand more fascinating and probing Cohen films could have been made.

The most troubling scene in the film is most definitely the last one. Here, finally, we have have Cohen singing on his own. The song in question is, appropriately, “The Tower of Song.” U2 provide backing. Bono is doing his best doo-wop‚ and the Edge is squeezing those lovely, long, soaring moans from his guitar. And Cohen is lip synching. Standing there, as weathered and motionless as a slab of ancient stone, he lip-synchs. Even if the concert footage had been stellar, and even if the interviews with Cohen had been more probing, and even if they’d told Bono to shut up, this unfortunate image would have been enough to inspire my ire.

Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man is now playing at the Cumberland (159 Cumberland, 416-646-0444) and Canada Square (2190 Yonge, 416-646-0444).