Saturday, January 14, 2017

LEONARD COHEN: BIRD ON A WIRE, the 1972, never-in-theaters documentary from Tony Palmer, opens at NYC's Film Forum

Could there a more timely release of a fabled documentary from decades past that was never seen theatrically than this 1972 film about the 20-city European tour by the recently-deceased Leonard Cohen (who was only 37 at the time) and his talented crew of musicians? Beginning in Dublin and ending in Jerusalem, the tour, its highlights and discontents are all captured on the fly by documentarian Tony Palmer in a film that proves intimate, inclusive and full of Cohen's music -- which, heard like this and at this point in the artist's career (he had not yet given us Hallelujah, for instance), does register as sometimes repetitive and similar, one song to another. But his lyrics: Ah, these were and are as poetic. elusive and beautiful as ever.

Over the long haul, Cohen (below and further below) and his work proved about as "evergreen" as one could want, but back in the early 70s the artist was in his heyday, and his songs -- from Suzanne to Chelsea Hotel, So Long, Marianne to that title tune -- reflect the period so very well. Mr. Palmer (shown above) tells us at the beginning that his film is "an impression of what happened during the tour." From the outset, it is clear what a quietly commanding presence Cohen is. When an interviewer asks what success means for him," he answers quickly and succinctly, "survival."

Along the way we learn that the rights to Suzanne were stolen from the artist by a "friend," and we see a probably rather typical (but still surprising in its reality) near-hook-up between the artist and one of his fans (below) after a concert in (I think) Germany. "It's hard to come on to a girl in front of the camera," Cohen explains somewhat sheepishly.

The guy is very good at interviews -- even if he may dislike doing them (and even if the interviewer, as below, forgets to press RECORD) -- and he proves generally honest, direct and thoughtful. He calls himself a combo chansonnier, Euro singer and synagogue cantor, and at one point talks about how trying it can be to lose contact with a song's emotion due to the constant repetition of having to sing it at concerts. Later in the film we'll see this seemingly happen, with the result that Cohen simply stops performing, mid-show.

And while the guy seems willing enough to offer his audience its money back when the band's sound system goes haywire, he's not so hot to do the refund thing, after he's walked out mid-concert. Well, you can't always be a mensch, right?

Palmer's doc, with its unshowy, graceful style (the filmmaker both directed and edited), captures Cohen and his band, if not warts and all, certainly not in any hagiography-seeking sort of way.  We see Cohen, as well as his producer/band-mate Bob Johnston, taking showers; one band member casually confesses to actually nodding off during a concert; and Cohen himself can sound awfully silly sometimes.

"Loneliness," he tells us, "is a political act." Well, no, it's not an action, it's a passive state. And while his lyrics can be wonderfully artful and subtle, at least one of the songs we hear -- purportedly about Abraham and Issac -- is way too tub-thumpingly obvious.

Just like most of us, Cohen, too, could be occasionally full of shit. And as he himself admits during the course of several interviews we're privy to, he was not much of a singer, either. But there's just so much poetry and yearning and caring in those lyrics. And, boy, could the guy turn out some lovely tunes!

New York City's Film Forum will play Leonard Cohen: Bird on a Wire for two weeks, beginning this Wednesday, January 18. Elsewhere? One would hope so. I will try to do some digging -- and post the results as soon as I can discover them.

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