When Leonard Cohen passed away last November at the age of 82, the moment was met with heartfelt, if not quite cataclysmic, mourning, speaking to the Québécois singer-songwriter’s long-held roost on the margins of popular music culture. Like Bob Dylan, Cohen blossomed in the 1960s folk scene, hypnotizing young bohemians in his prime with idiosyncratic wordsmithing that blended personal anecdote with political ire. But these two iconoclastic troubadours are separated by a fundamental gap in temperament that points to their respective positions in the popular sphere.
A fruitful study of that gap can be found in Tony Palmer’s semi-forgotten tour documentary Leonard Cohen: Bird on a Wire, which resembles a mellow cousin to Don’t Look Back, albeit one with crucial and telling differences. Where the Dylan of D.A. Pennebaker’s zeitgeist-marking artifact was a chameleonic performer with a preternatural awareness of being watched and a taste for stirring the mystique around himself accordingly, the Cohen of Palmer’s film is an altogether benign screen persona, ever the model of grace and dignity around his peers, if not exactly entirely at peace with himself. In one of the strongest differentiators between the two men on display in the films, Cohen fields the queries of a string of reporters with uninflected candor and hard introspection, offering a stark contrast to the comparatively hostile deflections of Dylan in similar scenarios in Don’t Look Back.
Cohen here is ever the model of grace and dignity around his peers, if not exactly entirely at peace with himself.
Like Pennebaker, Palmer shoots in 16mm in anonymous green rooms and regal concert halls but plays looser with his aesthetic (mixing monochrome and color stock) and allows himself more fanciful editorial digressions. A live performance of “Sisters of Mercy,” for instance, intercuts Cohen’s on-stage act with both contemporaneous footage of him on tour and various flashback snippets of the singer reading and writing poetry, while a radiant rendition of “So Long, Marianne” intermingles impressionistic home movies of Cohen as a young boy. In a more dubious example, Palmer sources graphic clips of suffering in Vietnam during the war to complement Cohen’s musings on the political utility of his music—an intrusion which effectively sullies the suggestive vagueness of his lyrics on these subjects.
Provocatively absent, meanwhile, is any sustained sense of the connection between singer and audience. The general dearth of crowd reaction shots and the preference for tight framing over showy full-band panoramas creates the impression of a performer deeply immersed in his own headspace, and while this fixation on Cohen’s interiority may fail to deliver the rollicking call-and-response energy of many music documentaries, it also yields a number of truly bewitching musical sequences. “Chelsea Hotel” stands out among them, with its series of gauzy slow dissolves between Cohen and his female backup vocalists resolving into an almost three-minute-long close-up on the singer’s face. It’s in moments like this that Palmer best illuminates Cohen’s particular contemplative genius, and when what functioned as a tossed-off documentary record in its time accumulates the power of a séance.