Your Guide to the Cinematic Life of Musician Leonard Cohen

Your Guide to the Cinematic Life of Musician Leonard Cohen

Jun 27, 2012

Take this Waltz poster crop

Languidly incisive, Leonard Cohen is the poet whose book is music. His iconography is not the result of intricate chords and fastidious arrangements, but of his achingly deliberate words which form the body of his vision. The music is the dressing that further emphasizes the heart of the composition – a simple beat to elicit the emotional motivation, melodic supporting voices to balance Cohen’s dark, gritty, and almost spoken lyrics. The music is little more than the podium and pre-show for the words to sing, a mandate so powerful that Rolling Stone insists it should be “on the table of periodic elements – when you discover it, it suddenly seems as necessary as oxygen.”

Leonard Cohen has inspired countless musicians, most notably through “Hallelujah,” a song the late Jeff Buckley re-envisioned so perfectly that it’s become an almost required cover. But this necessity stretches far beyond one beautifully written song and far beyond the halls of music. Cohen’s melodic, pensive poetry has been creative fuel for modern film, a staple of New German Cinema’s most indelible filmmakers, words that have scored everything from romance to bloody, violent drama, from a stoic desert to dystopian vigilantism.

Leonard CohenMusic became a necessity for Cohen. As an undergrad, he published his first book of poetry in 1956, followed by novels including the seminal Canadian tome Beautiful Losers. Trapped, however, in the “modesty” of Canadian literature at the time, where his “bestselling” poems sold in the hundreds and novels in the low thousands, he realized that he needed “to buckle down and make a living” (Guardian interview, 2009). On his way to Nashville, where he planned to become a supporting guitar player, Cohen “bumped into what later was called the folk-song renaissance” and the realization that the “little songs” he had previously written – that he thought would never sell – had a home.

“In hindsight it seems to be the height of folly. You had to resolve your economic crisis by becoming a folk singer. And I had not much of a voice. I didn’t play that great guitar either. I don’t know how these things happen in life – luck has so much to do with success and failure.”

His humility might label it luck, but it was clearly a magnetic match. A decade after his first book of poems, Leonard Cohen became a singer-songwriter with Songs of Leonard Cohen. He pushed for a sparse sound, and from those early moments the melodies that accompanied Cohen’s words were there only to frame, and never obscure his lyrics. His style instantly resonated. “Suzanne” became a well-covered hit, and Cohen grabbed the attention of the names who sparked ‘70s cinema, and subsequently an involvement in film that would see Cohen as the writer, creator, narrator, inspiration, and subject of decades of feature films.

Cohen began to flood film in 1971, with much more than the Joe Cocker doc Mad Dogs & Englishmen. Twenty-five years after the end of World War Two, a Jewish writer from Montreal began to influence three of the biggest names in New German Cinema – Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog, and Wim Wenders. Herzog began the trend with Fata Morgana, scoring footage of the Sahara Desert with only Cohen’s songs, a once-planned science-fiction film becoming an almost silent exploration of a wasteland. Cohen sings about Suzanne and Marianne, pondering about life and love as Herzog’s camera simply rides by vast stretches of both industry and sand dunes, of people and isolation.

While Herzog dove into the Sahara with Cohen’s music, Fassbinder used it to score his idiosyncratic look at a struggling film’s cast and crew in Beware of a Holy Whore. Instead of deserts, Cohen’s voice was juxtaposed with creative discontent. “Suzanne” floats through the air as Fassbinder’s own Sascha paces the hotel lobby and shouts in aggravation. “Sisters of Mercy” scores kissing and chatter. Yet there’s still a feeling of isolation, many subsets of the larger group seeming to exist without recognition of the other – soft clashing against harsh, indifference clashing against passion.

Unsurprisingly, Cohen’s impact on film in 1971 continued stateside in New Hollywood, where singer songwriters were thriving. Bonnie and Clyde had already flipped the old system into a new method of filmmaking; the world had already watched Simon and Garfunkle’s dulcet tunes score The Graduate and were about to hear Cat Stevens score the black comedy Harold and Maude. Melodies were continually juxtaposed with dark human impulses, and for Leonard Cohen, it was command of Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller.

Cohen’s music infused the entire film, starting with a dark, overcast opening introducing Warren Beatty’s McCabe, the “the dealer … looking for a manger” from “The Stranger Song.” The town of Presbyterian Church is isolated, and once again, Cohen’s melodies juxtapose a darker reality, “The Sisters of Mercy” arrive as the lecherous men grab at the newly arrived women, violence matched with gentle music. Ultimately, stunningly, Cohen sings about the “Winter Lady” after the film’s final fight, hitting “and I fought every man for her, until the nights grew colder,” as McCabe lay in the snow, separate from Mrs. Miller. In the words of Roger Ebert, they are “sad frontier laments.”

Watching Altman’s film, it becomes obvious that Cohen’s songs preternaturally fit each film they slide into, as if the words were meant for each scene (even if that same song is used over and over again in different worlds, scenarios, and films). Altman loved Cohen’s debut, but had forgottenit when he filmed McCabe. It was, however, as if the album insidiously provided the blueprint of a new idea without Altman’s knowledge.  After finishing the shoot, the director rediscovered the music and used it as a temporary soundtrack, sure he would never secure the rights, and surprised when Cohen agreed, as a fan of Brewster McCloud.  It was the perfect fit, a folk song of pictures: “You choose your journey long before you came upon this highway,” Cohen sings. “Traveling lady stay awhile, until the night is over. I’m just a station on your way, I know I’m not your lover,” as if McCabe had penned the lyrics himself.  

After such an immediate and explosive impact, Cohen almost completely disappeared from film in the ‘70s. There were no multi-tracked films and only four brief appearances of his music. By the ‘80s, Cohen’s involvement momentarily turned back to paper as it stagnated in the international mainstream. After being the subject of a documentary, The Song of Leonard Cohen, the singer-songwriter wrote two Canadian musicals. Cohen first penned a brief television musical, I Am a Hotel, a collection vignettes – essentially music videos of his songs outlining the lives of people in one hotel. In 1985 he stretched further, teaming with Lewis Furey to pen the musical fantasy Night Magic, a Genie Award-winner that faded into obscurity.

But Cohen’s resurgence in 1990 was the moment when his impact on cinema stopped fading. The King of intellectual rediscovery, the songwriter once again became relevant as the world was changing. What was once New Hollywood was now the grunge period reacting against the neon ‘80s, the revolutionary teens reacting against the Hughesian era, the bloody antiheroes replacing the swashbuckling good-guy adventurers.

1990 began with the forgotten Love at Large and continued with the Finnish film Banned from Heaven. Then “Bird on a Wire” appeared, not surprisingly, in Bird on a Wire, introducing Cohen’s music to Hollywood’s mainstream. But it was the fourth appearance that changed the game, a music-based film that thrust Cohen towards a new, younger generation embracing him with open arms – Allan Moyle’s Pump Up the Volume.

With his Wild Cherry Diet Pepsi and his Black Jack Gum, Christian Slater’s hero flicks on “Everybody Knows” and instantly morphed Cohen’s folksy isolation into an anthem of youthful solidarity, where the disillusioned kids in an Arizona town come together to fight a damaged system. It broke the skipping record of “Suzanne” and continued the popular re-emergence of old heroes, with Cohen reintroduced to the populace just as David Lynch had reintroduced Little Jimmy Scott.

He was sadly left out of the film’s soundtrack, but persevered past that oversight.

From “Suzanne” to “I’m Your Man, ” Cohen’s music appeared again and again, save for his last remaining break from film in 1991. “Everybody Knows” became the theme music for Mia Kirshner’s Christina, stripping in Atom Egoyan’s Exotica, before Cohen’s music got its next energetic jolt in 1994 with Oliver Stone’s frenetic Natural Born Killers. Serial killers who murder with gleeful abandon as the camera jumps between color and black and white, between stock footage, dream sequences, and real-time narrative seemed precisely the wrong home for Cohen’s methodic melody, but again, it fit beautifully.

“Waiting for a Miracle” introduces the world to Mickey and Mallory. He sings:

“Let's be alone together;
Let's see if we're that strong.
Yeah, let's do something crazy,
something absolutely wrong,
while we're waiting for the miracle,
for the miracle to come.”

Instead of pie and relaxation, Mickey and Mallory delight in craziness. Their whirlwind killing spree takes over for Cohen, before he reappears, “Anthem” gaining volume as the pair leave prison, and “The Future,” all on its own with no dialogue, seeing the pair ride off into a montage of familial moments: “Get ready for the future, it is murder.” The increasing grittiness and gravel in Cohen’s voice is the soliloquy outlining Mickey and Mallory’s violence. Like Pump Up the Volume, Cohen is the voice that defines the film, even if the feature includes a myriad of artists and musical styles.

Cohen’s music subsequently appeared in Strange Days and Breaking the Waves. “Hallelujah” began to pop up in films like River Street and Basquiat. By 1997, Hugo Weaving’s drunken Morris was singing multiple Cohen tunes for the Aussie film True Love and Chaos.

If Kiss the Sky was made a decade earlier, it might have hurt Cohen’s chances for a future on film – the story of two unsatisfied rich men who run away to the Philippines to enjoy three-ways with gorgeous travelers, exotic living, and quirky monks. Roger Young’s feature boasts the most Leonard Cohen songs (seven), but the least resonance. The men indulge in opium and sex, as they whine about their lives and treat each other poorly, the songs offering some link – “I ache in the places where I used to play … I’m just paying my rent every day,” but never the same artistic clarity of film’s previous uses. It’s a movie riddled with Cohen themes, manufactured in a way that leaves no impact.

Nevertheless, every year brought more collaborations from another striptease venture with Dancing at the Blue Iguana to the family friendly Shrek. By 2002, Steven Shainberg managed to both break through, encapsulating that easy connectivity in Cohen’s lyrics while also turning them on their head with Secretary. “I’m Your Man” seemed like it was always waiting for Lee Holloway’s love for Mr. Grey. “I’ll do anything you ask me to,” Leonard Cohen sings as Holloway blissfully acts as sub and secretary. “If you want a partner…  I’d crawl to you baby, and I’d fall at your feet, and I’d howl at your beauty like a dog in heat.” Once the saddle appears, “if you want to take me for a ride” begins to take on a whole new meaning.

Backing up a bit: Right before the rush of ’71, Cohen’s first novel, The Favourite Game, was released in Canada – once rejected in the ‘60s for its sexual content and imported from England. Over three decades later, it became Cohen’s only novel to hit the screen in 2003. Montreal native Leo is obsessed with women, sex, and intellectual thought, and it seems like a biographical journey inside Cohen’s head, though he insisted very early (below): “The emotion is autobiographical because the only person’s emotions I know about are my own. The incidents are not autobiographical. I apologize; I’m terribly sorry. I cringe before the tyranny of fact, but it is not autobiographical. I made it up out of my little head.”

For all of its power, which would usually suggest an immediacy, there’s always this sense of waiting within his work, from the time he took to craft each song (years, where Bob Dylan spent minutes), to how each unfolds, and his perseverance in silent decades. The same goes for Cohen’s impact on New German Cinema. For Fassbinder and Herzog, their use was immediate, mere years after Cohen’s debut emerged. Wim Wenders, however, waited until the next millennium.

Land of Plenty “came about in a matter of days,” but one can imagine it percolating within the filmmaker. When he talked of the film in 2006, Wenders said: “finally, there was this trip across the United States in the van, only the tiny last chapter of the film, just five minutes long, but with the opportunity to condense ‘the American landscape’ into the length of one song, Leonard Cohen’s magnificent ‘Land of Plenty,’ our title song.” It was the Fata Morgana of the post-9/11 landscape, Wenders’ camera travelling across America just as Herzog traveled through the Sahara.

Leonard Cohen, I'm Your ManWhen Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man appeared in 2005, Nick Cave said: “I felt like the coolest person in the world to discover this thing [Cohen’s music] that separated me from everybody and everything Wangaratta that I kind of detested.” It’s a sentiment that speaks to the range of Cohen’s mind – being everything to everyone – musical moments that can resonate in all manner of art, yet make one listener feel special, distinct, and unique.

By this point, it isn’t so surprising to hear Leonard Cohen’s ragged voice sound in a film, just like “Hallelujah” covers have become overkill. A raunchy moment where two vigilante superheroes copulate while their owl-shaped ship “ejaculates” can’t tarnish the legacy, and wonderfully – closing on forty years after Cohen’s first appearance, filmmakers are finding ways to reposition his music.

Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz finally hits theaters this week, where Michelle Williams stars as Margot, a woman torn between the monotony of the familiar and the temptation of the mysterious. The sophomore feature takes its name from Cohen’s refrain, delving into the same material as the song (inspired by Frederico Garcia Lorca’s poem Pequeño Vals Vienés) and ending with a gorgeous waltz spin as the tribute plays, a moment which reinforces and rips apart Margot’s dreams and delusions. “Take This Waltz” is parent to both theme and execution, invoking Margot’s inner desires and exposing the passage of time through Polley’s camera.

She takes Cohen, an artist who could possibly be teetering on the mundane with obvious overuse (139 titles in 44 years), and taps into the magnetism that thrust him into the spotlight all those years ago.

“I did my best, it wasn't much
I couldn't feel, so I tried to touch
I've told the truth, I didn't come to fool you…”

“Hallelujah.”

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