Something crucial is missing from the Lian Lunson documentary, Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man. Perhaps it’s simply that, for Cohen fans, it won’t do to have the master interpreted by U2’s Bono and The Edge. For those new to Cohen, U2 might be a sufficient teaser to get them to see the film. But for those who have long since absorbed Cohen’s lyrics and music into their skin, it seems beside the point what Bono and The Edge think.
I’m Your Man is a “rockumentary” that features the live tribute to Cohen by singers who have been inspired by him. The concert footage is intercut with Cohen himself explaining moments in his life that inspired certain songs, his spiritual awakening as a Buddhist monk, his inability to find lasting love. It is in those moments that I’m Your Man truly comes alive.
Unfortunately, the concert footage, while interesting, is in no way close to being the real thing. It’s a bit like a really good vegetarian meal; you like it, maybe even love it, but you miss the meat. The film suffers when Cohen is not on screen. He’s always been a mysterious, interesting poet and musician but somehow, with Cohen, he just gets more interesting as he grows older. Listening to his own musings on life – spoken with that impossibly low voice, is unexpectedly moving.
Unlike Bob Dylan, who has always been not only a genius but also a medium and whose inspiration comes from unknown places, Cohen meditates on the meaning of his songs, laboring on each line, knowing exactly where it came from and where it’s going. And if I’m Your Man does anything successfully, it’s that it makes you want to rush home and put on some Cohen.
The performances are wonderful, though Cohen is the real attraction. In particular, Nick Cave (of the Bad Seeds) and Rufus Wainwright sing Cohen’s most popular songs, like “Everybody Knows,” “Suzanne” and “Hallelujah.” The rest of the singers offer up some lovely interpretations of Cohen’s music, proving that his songs aren’t about that voice – they are solid and stand on their own.
But if your headliners are Cave and Wainwright, you know you’re not exactly dealing with hugely popular names. There is something refreshing in their normal clothes, their paunches, their receding hairlines and their visible passion for what they’re singing. It is at once a classy, artsy karaoke and a tribute to Cohen. Both Wainwright and Cave’s interviews fit well with the theme of the film but the tacked-on addition of Bono and The Edge doesn’t really add that much. And such a huge band like U2 doesn’t really have any business, despite how much they love Cohen, upstaging the rest of the talent.
Some of Cohen’s best songs, however, are left out. “Closing Time” and “The Future” are dark, to be sure, and maybe don’t quite fit the mold of positive philosophy guru they’re trying to deliver in this portrait of Cohen. But it was a shame to have left them out. In them, Cohen writes some of his very best, very darkest stuff.
But we get to hear Cohen sing “Tower of Song” which, despite the fact that he plays it with U2, is the main course. As to whether Cohen was a ladies’ man or not, Cohen says nobody would ever believe that he spent “a thousand nights alone.” Hard to believe a man who wrote this could ever be lonely:
If you want a lover
I’ll do anything you ask me to
And if you want another kind of love
I’ll wear a mask for you
If you want a partner
Take my hand
Or if you want to strike me down in anger
Here I stand
I’m your man