When Paste magazine did its recent list of the 100 Greatest Living Songwriters, Leonard Cohen finished sixth. He was ahead of such far more established and famous chart-toppers as Brian Wilson, Prince, Rolling Stones, Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, U2 and Elton John and Bernie Taupin.
It says something about the status of this 71-year-old Canadian poet/novelist and lifelong religious seeker that probably half the people who fancy themselves serious fans of well-written Pop and Rock tunes couldn't name five of his songs. He doesn't get much airplay, and few of his compositions have been hits by others.
The other half (those who like Cohen) probably is saying, "Just sixth?"
Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man is accessible and illuminating to both groups — although for his devotees it will be sheer nirvana. Music-video director Lian Lunson's film started as a recorded document of a wonderful tribute concert to Cohen at the Sydney Opera House.
The film is produced by Hal Willner and features Nick Cave, Rufus Wainwright, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Linda Thompson, Beth Orton, The Handsome Family, and others. But it turned into something more when Cohen afterward agreed to sit for interviews with Lunson about his career.
Cohen's painstakingly crafted songs — like "Suzanne," "Bird on a Wire," "Hallelujah," "Everybody Knows," and "Avalanche" — are heralded for their mournful beauty and mordant wit.
They're often frankly sexual without any coyness or cliché.
Yet there's also a religiosity — sometimes running concurrently with the eroticism — that separates Cohen from most other songwriters. His voice can be so deep and hoarse that Bob Dylan sounds like Luther Vandross by comparison. But to those who like Cohen, it's the Voice of Truth.
"He's the man who comes down from the mountaintop with tablets of truth," U2's The Edge says in this film.
Part of Cohen's appeal is that he isn't really Godlike in person — there's no arrogance or power-tripping or cryptically enigmatic pronouncements here by him. Rather, he's gently funny and self-deprecating, well-mannered but also very revealing about himself. He's a delightful conversationalist.
He's also no youngster. His hair is white; his face is creased although his smile makes years disappear. He can be a little slow with his power of recall, as when he tries to remember the term for the music lovers who have championed an album called Death of a Ladies' Man he made with producer Phil Spector back in the mid-1970s.
"The punksters," he finally recalls.
Talking about his song "Chelsea Hotel #2," which he once revealed was about receiving oral sex from Janis Joplin, he now confides his ongoing regrets at that long-ago slip of tongue: "She wouldn't have minded, but my mother would have been upset," he tells Lunson.
Other elements of the interview reveal that Cohen is a fastidiously careful dresser who hates jeans and who is deeply knowledgeable but never dogmatically predictable about religion. Born to a Jewish family in French-Catholic Montreal, he seems to have learned much about both religions.
He has also spent some 30 years studying Buddhism with a Japanese Zen master in a mountaintop California retreat. "He was someone who deeply didn't care about who I was, and the less I cared about who I was the better I felt," Cohen says in the film.
Sections of the interview with Cohen alternate with the concert footage, which alone would be reason enough to see the film. (Indeed, it's a shame it had to be edited at all to keep the running time to an acceptable length.)
Willner, who has already done tributes to Randy Newman, Kurt Weill and Harry Smith, among others, assembled a group of distinctive song interpreters and vocal stylists for this concert. Cave, who recalls for the camera how influenced he was by hearing Cohen's third album, Songs of Love and Hate, while growing up in a small Australian town, croons "Suzanne" in his mellifluously deep, resonant voice and then offers a bluesy "I'm Your Man."
Two of Cohen's veteran female backup singers, Perla Batalla and Julie Christensen, do an elevating version of Cohen's hymn-like "Anthem." Antony Hegarty (of Antony and the Johnsons) astonishes a crowd unfamiliar with him with breathtakingly high-tenor melisma on "If It Be Your Will."
Wainwright is given the most stage time of any of the performers (his sister, Martha, also sings, as does his mother, Kate McGarrigle). He responds with a sexy, revue-style version of "Everybody Knows" that builds in power and ends up as a rousing showstopper. And while personally I'd have liked to hear Hegarty do Cohen's best song, "Hallelujah," Wainwright's version is soulful and touching.
Occasionally, I'm Your Man starts to lose energy by cutting too often to U2's The Edge or Bono for a pithy comment about Cohen's impact. Since U2 did not play the Sydney concert, Lunson presumably felt lucky to get these superstars' participation in her film and thus wants to give them ample screen time. But their effusive praise grows redundant and hogs the spotlight.
But that's mostly forgiven because of the film's ending. Lunson lures Cohen, who rarely sings in public anymore, into doing his droll "Tower of Song" with U2 in a quietly funny yet still reverent performance at a Manhattan burlesque club.
In a just world, it should be a hit song, and this should be a hit movie. And Leonard Cohen should rank even higher than sixth in any poll of the greatest living songwriters. Grade: A-