Above: Director Lian Lunson
I first came across Leonard in the punk days,” director Lian Lunson says, inadvertently conjuring images of legendary songwriter Leonard Cohen sporting a blue Mohawk with safety pins through his ears. “People who were listening to The Sex Pistols were listening to Leonard Cohen,” she clarifies. “So that was me. At that time, I think we were all drawn to this incredible man who was able to sort of go off into these distant places and take us on these journeys of longing and hope and temptation. I think once you become a fan of somebody like that, they stay with you through your life.”
To this day, Cohen draws a wider range of fans than a grey-haired troubadour in patent-leather shoes might rightly expect to, and Lunson’s new documentary provides ample reasons why. Leonard Cohen I’m Your Man is a loving tribute, both a concert film shot in Sydney and a series of interviews with Cohen himself, and it includes performances by artists like Rufus Wainwright and Nick Cave. “There was a lot more of both,” she says of the film’s parallel tracks, “The concert itself had 34 songs, and I really let Leonard’s conversation sort of dictate which of those songs would end up being part of the story.”
I’m Your Man is Lunson’s second feature. Her first—a TV documentary about Willie Nelson—features a seemingly unlikely fan of the Texas singer/songwriter: Bono of U2, who also pops up in her new film.
“I’m always attracted to the searchers,” she explains. “A lot of spiritual writers or Christian writers sometimes sum it up and believe they’ve got the answers; No one’s really got the answers. The best we can hope for is that really insightful human beings will take us on a journey. And I think all of those musicians have that in common. The ones we’re attracted to—Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave, Bono, U2, Willie Nelson.”
Cohen’s life may be too eventful to summarize with brief anecdotes or burnish with fawning praise, but if someone’s going to wax poetic about him, it may as well be the articulate, sincere musicians in this film. Instead of mapping the many turns of Cohen’s journey, Lunson gives us his songs, reinterpreted in front of an audience by his famous fans and beautifully recorded with Cohen’s poetry out front. The self-indulgent performances typical of a tribute are few, trounced by a number of knockout renditions from artists who both honor the songs and make them their own. Wainwright performs three songs. When he sings “Everybody Knows,” the fan who wishes for a more complete look at Cohen’s life may have to admit that the journey’s essence is in the music.
The movie closes with the one number sung by the reclusive songwriter himself. It’s not live, and a lip-synched performance done for the cameras is an odd finale for a concert film, but it’s still a kick to see Cohen singing “Tower of Song” with U2 as his backup. Lunson aptly positions the band on a tiny stage with a glittering mylar background, like they’re in somebody’s basement lounge, a setting as classy, poetic and funny as the man himself.
Birthplace: Melbourne, Australia
Previous project: Willie Nelson: Down Home (PBS)
Fun fact: Produced the “inspirational” soundtrack for The Passion of the Christ. Now Passion director Mel Gibson is the producer of Leonard Cohen I’m Your Man, her Cohen documentary.
Favorite music: “Right now I am listening to Rufus Wainwright and Martha Wainwright, who I love. The Brokeback Mountain CD—that composer [Gustavo Santaolalla] is just fantastic. Lots of early U2, and Emmylou Harris.”