Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man is somewhat erroneously labeled as a documentary. Director Lian Lunson traveled to Sydney, Australia to film a tribute show entitled Came So Far For Beauty, a kind of lifetime achievement award showcase. The show was organized by music producer Hal Willner and includes both live performances and behind-the-scenes interviews by Leonard Cohen’s musical progeny – Rufus Wainwirght and sister Martha Wainwright, Nick Cave, Bono and U2, and many other performers. Each performance is prefaced with interview footage of Cohen, shedding light on the song, Cohen’s life, or his deeply mystical, dark, earthy vision.
Leonard Cohen emerged in the mid-1960s, loosely within the then-burgeoning tradition of acoustic guitar folk rock, a contemporary of Bob Dylan. Lunson’s film makes clear that Cohen owes far more to his anglophonic Montreal roots, moving somewhat in the vein of Gordon Lightfoot, Canada’s most famous English-speaking troubadour. Cohen grew up Jewish in what is arguably the second most important French-speaking cultural center (after Paris); given the darkly mystical, earth-rooted obsessions of his haunting songs, he seems an eerily close New World cousin to Franz Kafka. The latter grew up in the middle-class Jewish enclave within the German-speaking community of Czech-speaking Prague, just a generation before Cohen.
Cohen’s music also partakes very much of the European chanson tradition, by turns recalling Jacques Brel’s wry lyrics, by turns the raspy, sometimes blunt style of German cabaret. Cohen’s admirers are both legion and global. This thoughtful, wry, funny, hagiographic portrait of him, by some of his most ardent professional fans—by people whose own musical careers were shaped by his influence on them personally—deeply moves to tears, to laughter, to touching intimacy.
It is a shame that Leonard Cohen is not better known in the United States. How far American popular music has moved away from the still-vibrant tradition Cohen has worked in may make this film all the harder for domestic audiences to reach. For the neophyte, Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man can be a mostly engaging, informative, entertaining film. For Cohen fans it is a sweet Valentine to share with him. It features several of his signature songs, including both mandatory anthems—"Suzanne" and "Hallelujah."