Leonard Cohen has changed a lot in the time between just-released Bird on the Wire (a 1972 world tour) and just-released Songs From the Road (the 2008-2009 world tour) — from an earnest, Folk-oriented singer-songwriter into one of the world’s most beloved musical performers.
Bird on the Wire was shot by the British filmmaker Tony Palmer (All You Need Is Love, 200 Motels) and supposedly had some kind of theatrical release in 1974. But he recently discovered 294 film cans with bits and pieces of “lost” footage and, given Cohen’s resurgence, decided to reassemble it to create a new print closer to his original intentions.
Palmer’s fly-on-the-wall approach has its drawbacks; watching a few concertgoers criticize the sound system then isn’t very important now. But when it works, especially when Cohen is singing still-recent songs that have now become standards, this is essential Cohen viewing. Bird On a Wire reaches its zenith in a long sequence at the end where Cohen (raised an Orthodox Jew) starts to cry both onstage and backstage at the tour’s final concert in Jerusalem. Cohen is unnerved by performing before such an adoring crowd in a city that has so much symbolism for him.
Songs From the Road is state-of-the-art in its production and marketing. Filmed in such clear high-definition you can see stubble on Cohen’s intent face, it features complete, reverential footage from 12 of his flawless recent performances in 10 cities (there are three from London). It’s available as part of a DVD/CD package, or separately as a Blu-Ray.
A third new Cohen-related DVD is Leonard Cohen’s Lonesome Heroes. While this does have short, archival excerpts of Cohen performances and interviews, it’s primarily a deeply researched, scholarly and thoroughly engrossing look at his influences and origins as first a poet/novelist and then a songwriter. Chapters focus on the Beats, Henry Miller, Jacques Brel, Hank Williams, Federico Garcia Lorca, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, the folk revival, Judaism and Zen Buddhism.