Bright Lights Film Journal

Leonard Cohen, Ungloomed

A group of rather spectacular performers – Nick Cave, Rufus Wainwright, Anna McGarrigle, Martha Wainwright, Kate McGarrigle and Antony among them — gathered at the Sydney Opera House in 2005 to honor Leonard Cohen. Though Cohen has, by his own admission, often been “filed under gloom,” his songs are actually funny and rueful, especially the later work. Lian Lunson’s engaging I’m Your Man reflects quite accurately the mix of respect and seriousness that Cohen has about his work and the deep humor he has about himself. His songs retail his trial-and-error approach to matters professional and personal, with Eastern poetry and philosophy a constant, if elusive, presence. Cohen emerges as highly imperfect, extremely gifted and with a refreshing awareness that luck has, mostly, been on his side.

Interspersed between the performances are short, to-the-point interviews with those honoring him. Scenes with Cohen are conversational, his attitude towards the legends that have sprung up around him both indulgent and wry. He mentions that his reputation as a ladies’ man kept him amused during the “10,000 nights I spent alone.” Detailing the apparently innocent episode that led to “Suzanne” he admits there was such a person but that the “tea and oranges that come all the way from China” was actually just a cup of Constant Comment.

We see but never hear Roshi, a Zen master with whom Cohen spends a few months every year. About the five years when he lived at Mt. Baldy, Roshi’s California monastery base, Cohen notes “I shaved my head and hated everybody.” It’s a refreshing break from the smug spirituality so common to Cohen’s music-biz fellows. Of Roshi, Cohen says he’s a friend who really cares – “or maybe doesn’t,” in itself a working definition of Zen.

The occasional shimmering light-show style animations meant, it seemed, to suggest memory didn’t work for me. But for the most part, the film has some real laughs and the musicians are filmed with verve. Keeping in Zen trim and being, as Rufus Wainwright pegs it, a “snappy dresser,” Cohen looks great. He resists the easy categories, refusing to cling to youth or to cardigan himself in elderly wisdom. Cohen’s so comfortable in his own skin that, grey hair and wrinkles inclusive, he seems ageless.