Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
Lots of things occupying Seattle screens this weekend, from new films by Quentin Tarantino and Lynn Shelton to the Northwest Film Forum’s run of a 1974 film about David Hockney (A Bigger Splash). At the still-brand-new Beacon, a revival of the essential Seattle documentary Streetwise shares space with a festival of Gena Rowlands-John Cassavetes pictures. There’s also a heartfelt documentary, Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love, which looks at the lifelong affection between Leonard Cohen and Marianne Ihlen, the Norwegian woman who was the inspiration for some of his most memorable songs.
This put me in mind of a fine mostly-concert doc about Cohen from 2005. My review is from the Everett Herald in July 2006, and I was obviously stirred enough to ask a rash question at the outset.
Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man
Is Leonard Cohen’s Sisters of Mercy the greatest song ever written?
I mean no insult to Lennon and McCartney or the Gershwins, but this madcap thought went through my mind while I was watching Beth Orton sing the song in the new film Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man. That’s how effective this movie is.
I’m Your Man is essentially a concert film padded out with interviews. The concert was shot in Sydney in 2003, where a tribute to Leonard Cohen included songs performed by a passionate roster of fans, including Nick Cave, Rufus Wainwright, and Jarvis Cocker.
The interview subjects include Cohen himself. The Canadian singer-songwriter, born in Montreal in 1934, gives thumbnail views of his own life: from bohemian poet to California rock singer to acolyte in a Zen retreat. But a full bio of Cohen will have to wait for another documentary. The focus is on the music, and that’s all right. While the line-up for the Sydney concert is not exactly heavy with giant stars, it is clearly made up of performers who care a lot about Cohen’s music.
These include Kate and Anna McGarrigle, fellow Montreal natives, whose stirring version of Winter Lady is a highlight. Kate’s children, Rufus and Martha Wainwright, also figure prominently in the evening. Rufus Wainwright’s Hallelujah, which has lately become a fixture in movie soundtracks, is given a thorough workout. Nick Cave does a couple of songs, including the classic Suzanne, and shares some sweet memories of stumbling across Cohen’s music while growing up in Australia.
Surely the most singular performance in the movie comes from the androgynous singer Antony, whose unearthly falsetto makes If It Be Your Will an emotional epic. You might find yourself saying, “What was that?”, but you won’t be able to shake it. Cohen’s gorgeous Anthem is given a hearty treatment by two of his longtime backup singers, Julie Christensen and Perla Batalla, who in many ways outshine some of the better-known talent.
Capping the film is a studio performance by Cohen (he doesn’t perform in the Sydney concert), backed by U2 on Tower of Song. It’s good, but it also provides an excuse for multiple interview snippets by the ever-quotable Bono, who has just as big a gift for the penetrating one-liner as Cohen himself.
Cohen is an intriguing interview subject. For all his years and evident wisdom, he still gives you the feeling he could disappear for a few days and turn up with a 21-year-old bride in Las Vegas or something. But his music sure holds up, and I’m Your Man is a very fine capsule of it.
Robert Horton, the longtime reviewer for the Daily Herald and Seattle Weekly, is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.