I'm Your Man Review
I am a bit of an agnostic when it comes to cover versions. Some songs should be left alone like Bowie's Heroes for instance, and others have been dramatically improved to my ears such as Wilson Pickett's version of Hey Jude. Leonard Cohen's songs attract a degree of reverence and many people see it as anathema for another artist to touch them, but speaking as someone who loved Jennifer Warnes' album Famous Blue Raincoat I do see how the ongs can gain an extra life when taken on by more talented singers than the Armani suited one. I'm Your Man uses footage from concerts held in Australia to honour his songwriting and interview snippets with the great man himself. As a documentary it is rather unimaginative and generic with great use made of pictures from the archives of Cohen and home movies and the narrative of the interviews truncating the live performances of the songs. You have seen this kind of technique used numerous times before, but despite this or even because of it Cohen shines out of the uninspired proceedings with his intriguing words and thoughts. It also helps that Cohen's life has been so interesting and when the concert moments cut back in at times it is almost rude to stop him from talking. Cohen discusses his childhood and what first made him write - poetry to seduce girls - and the development of his talents as first a poet and then a songwriter. He gives insights into some of his songs and is remarkably open about his lack of gallantry in tracks like Chelsea Hotel and its relationship to Janis Joplin:
you were talking so brave and so sweet,
Giving me head on the unmade bed
While the limousines wait on the street"
Occasionally, other talking heads intrude into the concert with their thoughts and some of the comments are staggeringly clichèd and inane such as Bono's attempts to confer some of his starry dust on Cohen, but others are a little more interesting such as Rufus Wainwright's tale of first meeting Cohen in his underpants trying to revive a small bird. Nick Cave remembers hearing Cohen's music for the first time and it breaking him out of the parochial Australian town he grew up in and then crassly describes his bit at the concert as "giving something back". The talking heads kinda prove that musicians aren't great talkers and it is relief mostly to return to the concert. In the concert itself, there is good and bad and the opening description of all the participants as "an ensemble of the world's greatest performers" does seem to be a stretch especially when applied to the limpet like Handsome Family and the rather sedate McGarrigles. In fact in terms of performers it is only really Jarvis Cocker, Nick Cave and the Wainwrights who could be said to perform, with Cave in full twisted Sinatra mode and Rufus Wainwright giving his songs the intensity of lifetimes. This means, these exceptions apart, that the concert is a rather still affair and the filming of it does not help. Martha Wainwright's almost completely unintelligible warbling is backed up by Lunson using very, very long takes - Lunson clearly expects the viewer to be having a religious experience at this moment but I was left wanting a switch of camera angle to ease my pain or at least some idea of what Cohen's words were that were being mangled. Similarly, Lunson shoots Beth Orton as if she is the second coming and then chooses to end Cave's performance of I'm Your Man after a verse or so. The way the concert is shot is dull and rarely goes beyond two camera angles both of which only look at the singer in medium close-up, there is no sense of life in the musicians around the singers or in the audience and in fact energy of any kind seems to be tantamount to heresy against Saint Len.
There is a wasted opportunity here and the more the film spends time with Cohen himself the more it becomes clear that the rest of the artists here are pygmies and poseurs compared to him. The film maker would have been better advised to use more of Cohen and his extrordinary life - poet, singer and zen monk - rather than trying to borrow some of the other artists' cool to reinvigorate Cohen in the eyes of the audience. This is particularly the case in the final excruciating moments of the film when Cohen lipsynchs whilst U2 pretend to play Tower of Song on the smallest stage that you might ever see 5 men on outside of seedier parts of Amsterdam. The setting is a bit like a working men's club from the seventies but it is trying to say chic nightclub. Just why this is tacked on to the film is beyond me and it does no one any credit, Cohen twinkles through it and is good humoured but I am sure he would squirm if he saw it again. I'm Your Man retains your interest because you are wondering what the great man will say next, but here he is surrounded by people of far less ability than him and nowhere is this more true than in the director's chair.
The disc is a 90% used dual layer with an interview and extra songs as its special features. The extras include a prosaic commentary from the director which is hardly an insight into her technique or her subject, in fact Lunson comes over as rather empty headed. She explains the long takes around Martha Wainwright as her attempt to capture the singer's intensty and tells stories of Beth Orton stopping traffic in Australia with her looks. I can't imagine why anyone would want to listen to this track who has bought the disc as you will learn little else about Cohen. The other extras are extra songs from the concerts and rehearsals with Wainwright doing Tower of Song, an awfully leisurely Bird on a Wire from Perla Batalla, Teddy Thompson rehearsing Tonight Will Be Fine and the Handsome Family doing serious damage to Famous Blue Raincoat. Finally we get an interview with Cohen which is used in the feature which here is presented unedited.
The transfer of the main feature is well done with excellent contrast, good colour balance which reproduces skintones accurately whilst keeping the odd red accents throughout the film. The transfer is sharp and my only quibbles with the video presentation come in the source material from the concert footage where there are occasional comet trails and motion blur. These though are not mastering problems. The audio comes in stereo and 5.1 versions, and the surround is barely used in the concert footage which being shot front on has little use for rear speakers other than for mild crowd noise and echoes of the side channels. The mix does not change when the camer angle switches so the surround effect is not wholly authentic of what we are seeing. The concert music is also not remixed to create better separation between instruments and this means that despite the stereo or surround it does sound flat, unlike the studio performance with U2 at the end of the feature.
I'm Your Man is most interesting when Cohen is speaking or performing and the other acts featured are not as starry as the film's blurb claims. Rufus Wainwright, Nick Cave and Jarvis Cocker's takes on the Cohen songs are all good but I couldn't shake the feeling that I would have preferred to listen to Leonard drawling his way through the same words. The whole film is a little disappointing and the direction is natureless and without love for its subject. The only people I can see buying this disc are diehard Cohen fans or people who actually have heard of some of the more obscure acts featured here.