One of the greatest singer-songwriters of all time is Zen Jew Leonard Cohen. The homage to his songwriting Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man (2005) has very little of his own singing, being an homage from sundry other singers performing his compositions.
I'll watch anything to do with this singer, but I frankly wasn't expecting this film concert to be as great as it was, because in the main Leonard sings his songs best. I love his deep fractured voice & was not personally interested in many of the singers brought on board for this project.
And the fact that someone thought Nick Cave was just the right guy to join in the fun didn't bode well for me personally. Nick has always seemed like an imitation Leonard Cohen, but with a Vegassy leaning that pretty much ruins it for me. And indeed his rendition of the title number "I'm Your Man" though fun nevertheless pales next to Leonard's recording. Nick brings nothing new to the interpretation, & I'd grade it as best a B- next to the original's A+
Nick will later sing "Suzanne," possibly Leonard's best known song, & kind of a cliche choice, as might be expected of Nick Cave. It's again adequate & imitative, nothing special. Merits only a C
"Thousand Kisses Deep" sung by Linda Handsome & the Handsome Family is lovely enough, but like Nick Cave they're just imitating rather than interpretting & unfortunately make it just a little too much "I Did It My Way." Grade that one a C
Here & there through the film we'll see Leonard reading his own poetry, which is strong stuff. It's part documentary with bits of biography, part interview & photos, though the music is the heart of it. The singers invited to showcase some of his songs turned out to be a very mixed bag, but at the best much more than I'd imagined could happen.
So up comes Rufus Wainwright doing "Everybody Knows." This is one of Leonard's great songs as he sings it. And Rufus gives it a wonderful interpretation, making this beautiful song his own. It's the first inkling that this concert is going to have high moments that more than make up for moments that are only fair. Rufus gets a definite A
We'll see Rufus again, singing "Hallelujah" plainly & simply, rightly avoiding all ornamentation. Had I never a fan of Rufus's voice before, I am by now completely won over to him. Another A
He'll additionally perform "Chelsea Hotel," one of my Cohen faves. After Rufus's splendid takes on "Everybody Knows" & "Hallelujah" his version of "Chelsea Hotel" was by comparison uninspired, but still at least a B
And why not keep it in the family. Martha Wainwright turns Leonard Cohen's "The Traitor" into a southern folksong, almost too beautiful to believe. A+++ for Martha, my god, I never would've expected it.
Kate & Anna McGarigal join Martha to sing the lyrical "Winter Lady": "Why are you so quiet now/ Standing there in the doorway," sweet, sad, lovely -- sung as if by beautiful witches. Give it a B
Red-haired Teddy Thompson has a sweet voice but a little generically standard-folksy, & not terribly memorable. He gets a B- for "Tonight We'll Be Fine for a While."
I really didn't believe there could be anything to equal Martha's take on "The Traitor," but I was truly awestruck when Antony Hegarty (of Antony & the Johnsons, but without the Johnsons) in his quavery tragic voice gives a heart-rending & breathtaking rendition of "If It Be Your Will."
Instead of at his piano as usually seen, he stands at the microphone with eyes closed, twitching like an inexpertly operated marionette clad in rags, a vision of macabre beauty, this five & three-quarter minute performance one of the greatest encapsulated performances I've seen in my life. I can't even grade this performance. Visually he's mesmerizing. Vocally this is transcendently sorrowful & rises well above mere greatness.
Alas it's the only song he sings, perhaps having personally to recover a couple weeks from the sadness of singing it, perhaps just knowing he couldn't trump himself on that number.
Beth Orton sings "Sisters of Mercy" with purity & sacredness in her voice. It would've been much more heartbreaking if she hadn't followed Antony who rips out your heart so completely that "mere" sadness by comparison is cheerful. Beth gets an A++
Beth also does a duet with Jarvis Cocker for "Death of a Lady's Man" which I'll give a B+ for Beth's part. Jarvis alone sings "I Can't Forget." He looks like a young Peter Fonda crossed with Super Chicken & merely impersonates Cohen. Not great. C-
"Anthem" with such memorable lines -- "Ring the bells that still can ring/ There is a crack, a crack in everything/ That's how the light gets in" -- is performed by by Perla Batalla & Julie Christensen, elsewhere in the film seen as back-up singers, & heard as back-up on some of Leonard's own recordings, so they certainly had a right to be in on this project.
However, they're excellent as back-up but out front they're a mite weak. They don't wreck the song at all, but it's a little ordinary. C+
Despite some mediocrity along the way, the best were so amazing that no one will be disappointed. Martha & Antony's spots are alone worth the price of admission, & to that add superb moments from Rufus & Perla.
So what more could anyone want? Well, what more would be Leonard himself, & happily we get him personally singing "Tower of Song" backed up by of all bands U2, with a burlesque queen moment from Joan Wasser a bit out of place except that it fits Cohen's tendency toward arty sleeze.
His performance is not the best he's ever done by a long shot, but I loved it. He's lost some of the already limited vocal range he had when much younger, but he works around that fact so well, he gets it right.
His close is not really part of the rest of the concert, but is too obviously done in a studio. He may be relying more on the studio mixer than at his prime, but he's still simply & beautifully a great writer & fine performer. The band joins in singing sweetly, making it part of the loving tribute, & the whole spot gets an A+
At film's end Leonard is standing there like a Buddhist saint lost in bliss.
There are extras on the disc, four additional songs that didn't make the final cut. These include Martha Wainwright singing "Tower of Song" as though it were a Carter Family tune. She does really well, but her take on "The Traitor" blows it out of the water.
"Bird on a Wire" is quite well done by Perla Batalla. Likely it was relegated to "extras" because it's a little churchy & lacks individuality, but I liked it. The Handsome Family does "Famous Blue Raincoat" imitating Leonard, a bad idea all round, I'd've deleted that one entirely.
And Teddy Thompson's alternate take on "Tonight Will Be Fine For a While" is best of the four outtakes. None of these beg to have been included in the main film.
As a total aside, seeing world-famed anti-semite Mel Gibson as one of the producers of a Jewish guy's tribute provided its own moment of discord.
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