Tributes to the fallen pop idols of 2016 — David Bowie, Prince, George Michael — hail their gender-toggling and reinventions of masculinity in the mainstream, celebrating Bowie’s and Prince’s penchants for flamboyant bodysuits and Michael’s libertine out-ness. Another name belongs on that list: Leonard Cohen. Yes, the songwriter favored regular-guy button-ups, sweaters, and suits. But on an emotional and intellectual level, Cohen was quietly discomfited by the rigid confines of being a man, a pop star, and a “sex object” — he often spoke of how his female and male sides must work together for the sake of a song.
Nowhere has Cohen’s inner turmoil been better illuminated than in Tony Palmer’s lost-and-found 1974 documentary Bird on a Wire. We see the singer embark on an emotionally draining world tour in 1972, when handfuls of devoted fans in Europe and Israel were clamoring to hear even a few breathed words of “Chelsea Hotel,” “Suzanne,” “Who by Fire,” “Sisters of Mercy,” “Famous Blue Raincoat,” or “So Long Marianne.” Onstage, Cohen never had the swagger or bravado of a Bob Dylan. He hated touring and rarely did so in the early years. He says he saw his songs as intimate love letters, that he never listened to his own recordings and that the idea of nightly embodying all the passion and hurt he had put into them filled him with panic. Yet he was forced to tour, and people close to him thought this one would be his last. Palmer’s camera is intimate with Cohen’s face and his deer-in-the-headlights eyes; you can see his crumbling psyche behind them.
It’s easy to think Cohen must have been a superstar at the time, but that’s not quite true. As David Remnick pointed out last fall in his excellent New Yorker profile, the poet’s music was something of a litmus test for white cool at the time of its release — if you knew/liked Cohen, you were a true music fan. His first few albums hadn’t done well, but he was beloved. In the documentary, Cohen says he can’t gauge success the way others who made it big fast can; it took him twenty years to get people to take interest in his words. “Success is surviving,” he says. Palmer shows us one reporter after another asking the musician to explain some sort of secret to creativity as Cohen glances around helplessly. “I prefer not to speak at all,” he says, in full-on Bartleby mode. But, dutifully, he continues, and generally spins wisdom out of thin air.
Palmer smartly lets performances of select songs run almost all the way through, but he edits in images of a world torn apart: bombed-out buildings in West Berlin, people parachuting into explosions in an unidentified country, a father weeping over his son’s charred body. At times, the director intercuts scenes of Cohen reading political poetry. These moments are haunting and strange, the camera pulling back slowly from his visage, revealing baroque furniture and a corked bottle of Champagne on the table in the vacant room around him. This burst of luxury is at purposeful odds with the stark words from Cohen’s poem, “The Killers That Run the Other Countries,” and the glimpses of devastation.
Night after night, beautiful women approach him backstage, coyly asking if he’d like to “spend time” with them after the show. He politely refuses them all. The women look around, embarrassed and rejected. But sometimes he tells them why: He’s afraid he’s going to “disgrace” himself onstage and wants to be in the company of his bandmates for the fallout. One woman laughs, then looks at him with eyes anew. It’s almost as though she’s realized for the first time that he’s a person, not just the smoky-voiced caricature of a lover.
In Remnick’s profile, Cohen describes the mental breakdown he suffered during this tour. Onscreen, Cohen’s fits of laughter at inappropriate times might seem cold, but with the backstory, it’s clear his wires are crossed. The sound system gets worse and worse as the tour wears on; in West Germany it’s so bad that some cranks muscle their way backstage, threatening a riot if people don’t get their money back. At another show, Cohen leaves the stage in the middle of his set and starts shaving backstage. He’s cackling as the razor hits his skin, and we can see the slow realization on the faces of everyone around him that all of Cohen’s poetic talk about “disgrace” and having a nervous breakdown wasn’t just for show.
The final performance brings Cohen and his band to Jerusalem. They’ve just endured a riot at the show in Tel Aviv. Backup singers Donna Washburn and Jennifer Warnes have had to share a mic with Cohen for the past three tour dates after theirs malfunctioned. Nobody’s happy, and Cohen can barely finish the performance, but someone offscreen convinces him it’s his duty to do so — the camera’s hyper-focused only on him. As Cohen sings “So Long Marianne,” Palmer trains his gaze on the eyes; the performer is so addled, so broken, that he loses it. In real time, we see the tears well up and spill out, staining Cohen’s cheekbones as he bids farewell to his old friend and lover.
Backstage, the women hold each other and Cohen holds the neck of his guitar, strangling it while wiping away tears. His voice has long haunted me; now his eyes do, too. Cohen was a pop star with literary language, a self-aware man of deep thought often discounted as a simple bard of love songs. But how he saw the world and interpreted it with eloquent, heartbreaking words will never be replicated. And now that’s got me crying.
Bird on a Wire
Directed and edited by Tony Palmer
Opens January 18, Film Forum