Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man is partly a filmed recording of the “Come So Far For Beauty” tribute to brilliant songwriter Leonard Cohen at the Sydney Opera House in January 2005, featuring vivid performances of such songs as “I’m Your Man” cannily interpreted by Nick Cave, “Hallelujah” interpreted, once again, by loose cannon Rufus Wainwright, and Beth Orton quivering her way through “Sisters Of Mercy.” The concert achieves mixed success, lurching back and forth between earnest folk renditions of Cohen classics versus twitchy, indulgent freak shows and post-punk gravitas. The magic of Cohen’s lyrics hold up against varied interpretations, so whether the performer is grating or haunting or cringe-inducing or beautiful, it’s always potent. For example, in “The Traitor” Cohen taps into the sexual and the dangerous with lyrics like “But I lingered on her thighs a fatal moment/I kissed her lips as though I thirsted still/My falsity had stung me like a hornet/The poison sank and it paralyzed my will.” Not even Martha Wainwright’s agitating squirminess and distracted manner can take away from the depth of Cohen’s poetry.
What’s far more infuriating is the way the filmmakers will cut away from a performance of Nick Cave to show interview footage of the musician describing how he discovered Cohen’s music as a child, and Bono waxing rhapsodic about how Cohen is the Keats or Byron of the counter-culture music set, and Cohen himself discussing the Bodhisattva and the indescribable nature of creating art and poetry. The other artists engage in hyperbole and Cohen is stuck having to reduce himself into some kind of sound bite, which is unfair at best because the music is better left to speak for itself without interruption. There’s also a pretentious bit of poetic CGI of red sparkles floating through concert performances, and cryptic images of Cohen standing in front of a red sequin curtain, his heavy lidded stare meant to be enigmatic and mysterious but more reminiscent of shots of Dracula when hypnotizing his victims. These unnecessary flourishes undermine and interrupt the flow of the concert film this could have, should have been.