In last year’s “Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man,” filmmaker Lian Lunson pays homage to the man often considered the Canadian equivalent of Bob Dylan by filming a succession of performers singing Cohen’s songs, in scenes that emphasize just how beautiful his songs are when sung by someone else. When Cohen sings his own works — masterpieces of poetry like “Hallelujah,” “Everybody Knows,” “Chelsea Hotel” and, of course, “I’m Your Man” — his drone-like voice sucks much of the life out of the powerful words. The performances by the Canadian singers, however, finally do justice to Cohen’s beautiful melodies. The singers’ renditions take up about half of the 98-minute film (which premiered at Sundance this year, and gets a limited release June 21) allowing it only to hint at the most interesting questions of Cohen’s fame: How did he become a celebrity when he lacked one of the most important tools a singer can possess: crystal-clear or honeyed vocal cords? Indeed, who is the man behind the voice?
Cohen was born into a middle-class Jewish family, and was a typical late bloomer. He didn’t become popular until his mid-30s, when his two novels — “The Favorite Game” (1963) and “Beautiful Losers” (1966) — began to shape his reputation as a wizard of words. A record deal with Columbia soon followed, and his first album (“The Songs of Leonard Cohen”) premiered in 1968. Cohen was an immediate smash. Though his mass popularity began to fade as the years flew by, he retained enough of a cult following to justify releasing a new album every few years, right up to his most controversial work, “Death of a Ladies’ Man,” in 1979. Self-expressive and depressing, the album’s songs epitomized Cohen’s worst attributes, with his monotone delivery unleashing heavy, pretentious dialogue. Even there, though, Cohen displayed a passion for his material, and this intense admiration of — and fervor for — the art of poetry is touched on by Lunson’s film.
The first poetry to affect Cohen took place in a Montreal synagogue when he was a young boy. Listening to the rabbi telling Bible stories and to the cantor chanting prayers gave him chills and set him on the path to poetry (his other primary literary influence was Marvel Comics). Lunson slips in this tantalizing tidbit early on, but fails to build on it; Judaism obviously played a major role in shaping Cohen as a man, yet we’re never given any solid information on its meaning for him. And Lunson seems just as muddled by Cohen’s transition to Buddhism, which began in the 1970s and culminated with him becoming an ordained monk in 1996. Cohen appears, from some terse comments he offers in the film, to have been infatuated with the peaceful, disciplined ways of the monks, but his embrace of Buddhism did not stem from a repudiation of Judaism. “I’m not looking for a new religion,” he once remarked. “I’m quite happy with my old one, with Judaism.” The film doesn’t mention this statement. Similarly, Cohen was fascinated by monasticism, an early Christian philosophy that involved fasting and isolation. This viewpoint matched his values in general, but in a spiritual manner more than a religious one. “I’m Your Man” ultimately does give its viewers an effective, if basic, portrayal of Leonard Cohen, thinker and writer; though if Lunson had ditched 25 minutes of music, she could have added plenty of meat to the lean bones.
Cinematically, “I’m Your Man” divides into two categories: half acoustic concert, half talking heads. Lunson’s style is jerky and uncomfortable; the interviews enter abruptly, as if to break up the music and the ceaseless flow of accolades. Cohen himself appears perfectly comfortable in front of the camera (Lunson usually frames him so that he is literally a talking head), his comments delivered matter-of-factly in the same wheezy voice with which he crooned his songs. Before he has a chance to expand on his ideas and memories, a singer comes onstage to belt out or whisper one of Cohen’s songs. In his long, eventful life, Cohen has taken a back seat to nobody. But in “I’m Your Man,” the director pushes him out of the way. Her erratic picture comes from the heart, but it’s too one dimensional to make us see why Cohen was, indeed, our man.
Gabe Leibowitz is a film critic in New York and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.