The other day I went along to our local Picturehouse, drawn by what I anticipated would be a new film portrait of the late and incomparable Leonard Cohen. What I got was a lesson on the increasing unreliability of my memory: as soon as the opening credits began rolling I realised that I had seen Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man not just once, but probably twice before, perhaps on TV.
No worries, though: the film, which combines segments of an extended interview with Cohen and performances from a tribute concert at the Sydney Opera House in January 2005, is one I was happy to sit through again. It’s always a pleasure to listen to Leonard’s wry assessments of his life and worth (one of his best is here: ‘My reputation as a ladies’ man was a joke. It caused me to laugh bitterly the 10,000 nights I spent alone’), while the cover versions are generally (though not always) interesting, even revelatory. Above all, there is the best cover of ‘Anthem’ (which gives this blog its title) by Cohen’s regular backing vocalists, Perla Batalla and Julie Christensen.
Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man is a record of a tribute concert, held at the Sydney Opera House in January 2005, titled ‘Came So Far for Beauty’ (after a Cohen song). The event featured performances of a selection of Cohen’s best songs by folk such as Nick Cave, Rufus Wainwright, Antony Hegarty, Jarvis Cocker, and Teddy Thompson. Unfortunately, the line-up also includes Kate and Anna McGarrigle (middle-aged women who sing in little girl voices), Martha Wainwright and, in a specially-filmed segment tagged on at the end (because they weren’t present at the Sydney concert), U2 backing Cohen as he sings ‘Tower of Song’.
Some of the performers also offer personal comments on why Cohen means so much to them. Most of these talking heads offer platitudes that could have been left on the cutting-room floor. The absolute worst are Bono and The Edge. The latter rambles on about Catholicism, monasteries and religious transcendence, while Bono, true to form, puffed up with self-importance, offers comments of monumental banality.
What makes the film worthwhile, apart from the music, are the autobiographical passages narrated by Cohen himself and illustrated with old photographs and home movies. He speaks of his family and his early life in Montreal, recalling how his first encounter with poetry and song was in the Jewish liturgy at his synagogue.
Yes, you who must leave everything that you cannot control
It begins with your family, but soon it comes around to your soul
Well, I’ve been where you’re hanging, I think I can see how you’re pinned
When you’re not feeling holy, your loneliness says that you’ve sinned
He also speaks at length about the five years in the late 1990s during which he retreated to a monastery on a Californian mountain top to follow a Japanese Zen Buddhist master (who spoke no English, while Cohen spoke no Japanese) and eventually become a monk himself.
If it be your will
That I speak no more
And my voice be still
As it was before
I will speak no more
I shall abide until
I am spoken for
If it be your will
As far as the concert footage is concerned, it’s a mixture of shimmering highpoints and abysmal low points. Nick Cave does a workmanlike job with ‘I’m Your Man’ and ‘Suzanne’, while Rufus Wainwright – as his wont – hams up ‘Everybody Knows’ to the hilt, and gives decent renditions of ‘Chelsea Hotel No. 2’ and ‘Hallelujah’. Antony Hegarty is transported to another plane of existence during his mesmerising recitation of ‘If It Be Your Will’, while Jarvis Cocker sings the truly weird ‘I Can’t Forget’, transporting ‘old addresses where you used to live’ in Montreal to Sheffield with his accent.
However, the most spine-tingling, hairs on back of neck moments come with Teddy Thompson (son of Richard and Linda), who electrifies’Tonight Will Be Fine’ with an intense vocal, and Perla Batalla and Julie Christensen with their powerful and emotional duet on ‘Anthem’. The latter is an astonishing performance, due primarily to Perla Batalla’s passionate embrace of the lyrics and of her singing partner, Julie Christensen. Listen carefully, too, for a distant roar from the audience, two years after the invasion of Iraq, when Perla reaches these lines:
The wars they will
Be fought again
The holy dove
She will be caught again
Bought and sold
And bought again
The dove is never free
I had the title poet, and maybe I was one for a while. Also the title singer was kindly accorded me, even though I could barely carry a tune.