In our regular column, Less Than (Five) Zero, we take a look at films that have received less than 50 logged watches on Letterboxd, aiming to discover hidden gems in independent and world cinema. This week Tiernan Morrison looks at the tour documentary of the late Leonard Cohen in Bird on a Wire.
In Ladies and Gentlemen… Mr. Leonard Cohen, the artist is shown writing on a wall: ‘Caveat Emptor’. Let the buyer beware. Of his many talents—poetry, prose, song writing—Leonard Cohen’s greatest genius was always for self-mythology. In photos and public appearances, Cohen embodied a brand of brooding, erudite masculinity that sprang from and fed into the perception of his work. It is clear that Cohen cultivated this aura. He rarely gave interviews, so the facts of the biography he carefully and repeatedly disclosed took on a feeling of lore: the two women that took him into their room on a snowy night, the mysterious tribute he wrote to his dead father, then buried in the yard as a child. Alongside artists like Bob Dylan and Prince, Leonard Cohen was among the first to recognise the way an artist’s public persona could be manipulated as an extension of their art. While his songs speak for themselves, the boundless despair of ‘Avalanche’ and the mournful sensuality of ‘Chelsea Hotel’ are made deeper, more complete when read against the image of the enigmatic man on the album cover. In a time where pop culture heroes are often exposed for frauds, Leonard Cohen never seemed false. Even as he changed throughout his career, the prayer-like tenor of his best work and his reputation for spiritual searching1 gives rise to idea that there was something transcendent about Cohen; a romantic notion that maybe in Cohen the myth was in perfect union with the man. Perhaps that was just another layer to the myth.
Tony Palmer’s Bird on a Wire is a flawed film, but perhaps because of its flaws, it’s able to approach its subject from a revealing place. The film follows Cohen and his band on their 1972 tour of Europe at the peak of his popularity, filming him onstage, in interviews and on the road. The film was originally commissioned by Marty Machat, Leonard’s doting manager, to present Europe’s enamoured vision of Cohen to an American audience he had so far failed to impress. Tony Palmer, then known for his tour movies of Cream and Frank Zappa, was brought into direct the film and given unprecedented access to the camera-shy Cohen. It didn’t hurt that Palmer had been amongst the first to give Leonard a glowing review in his role as music critic for the Observer. Under Machat’s careful supervision, Palmer set out to assemble a Leonard Cohen sampler for the uninitiated; an introduction the myth. Neither of them counted on Leonard Cohen’s 1972 tour of Europe becoming something of a disaster. The tour coincided with the release of Cohen’s bleakest album Songs of Love and Hate, which was a critical and commercial failure in America. Forced onto the road by his record label, Cohen’s hatred for public performance saw him embark on the tour in a deeply unhappy state of mind. All this was made worse by the tour itself, which was plagued by the riots, bad trips, angry fans and near constant equipment failure.
Bird on a Wire is animated by the tension between the Leonard Cohen the director wants to show and the Leonard Cohen that appears. The film is the fascinating spectacle of hagiography wrought from the scrap metal of life; a bleak record of an artist’s reality cobbled together into an effigy of the man he was imagined to be. Like Ladies and Gentlemen, it seeks to portray the aspects of Cohen he was known for: a heroic, soulful, sexy genius who speaks in a measured, vaguely theological idiom of his own making. Throughout the film, Leonard is shown rebuffing the advances of female fans, reading anti-war poems as images of Vietnam play and talking loftily about the purpose and possibility of art. The opening of the film figures Cohen as a sort of folk messiah, quelling a riot at a concert in Tel Aviv. To drive the point home, the scene is punctuated with absurd stock sound effects of people being punched. You couldn’t accuse Palmer of being subtle. Despite careful curation, the myth of Cohen does not withstand the camera’s gaze or the stress of the tour. Talking to female fans in the film, Cohen does not seem like the ladies’ man he was famed for being so much as an awkward adolescent. On top of images of images of the famous ‘Saigon Execution’, the poems Cohen reads from The Energy of Slaves sound forced and didactic. Unlike the lithe lothario of Ladies and Gentlemen, this Cohen is a much meaner animal, a tired, emaciated man who claims to define success solely as “survival”. He refers to himself alternatively as a “broken down nightingale” and a “parrot chained to a perch”, forced to perform songs he no longer recognises as his own. Bird on a Wire is a record of despair, but not of the type Leonard Cohen built a brand on.
The most remarkable thing about Bird on a Wire is how by failing to capture the myth it shows us something else. Instead of the lady-killer/voice-of-a-generation genius that the film wants us to see, we see a neurotic riddle of a man who figures the banal chaos of his life in the same gnomic prose in which he spoke of love or God or any of his great themes. We even catch glimpses of the warm, self-deprecating humour that would come to the fore in his later work. Indeed, it is easy to read the film as a transitional document, catching the artiste as life starts to shed him of his pretensions. This effect is best summarised by its final scene, perhaps the most essential video recording of Leonard Cohen ever made. It shows the final concert of the tour in Jerusalem, where Leonard and the band were scheduled to play for thousands of people in an outdoor amphitheatre. After playing a few songs, Cohen apologises to the crowd, offering them a refund if the performance doesn’t improve. From the reaction of the audience and the footage of the performance, it’s not clear what the problem is. He stops midway through a song and apologises again, telling the crowd with a wry smile that he’s leaving the stage to “profoundly meditate backstage”. Before walking off he explains: “It says in the Kabbalah that if Adam and Even do not face each other, God does not sit in his throne. I cannot make the male and female parts of myself encounter each other tonight”.
Cut backstage to where Leonard is refusing to finish the concert despite the pleas of his exasperated band mates. After shaving and dropping acid, Cohen re-takes the stage briefly to play an incredible ‘So Long, Marianne’, and ends the concert for good. Despite just having played a whole tour, Cohen seems genuinely convinced that it would be impossible for him to finish the concert in his current state. “What a terrible thing to happen in Jerusalem” he says, as though afflicted by something beyond himself. This is not the effortlessly cool Cohen we know but nor is it the on-stage tantrum of vapid popstar. Here at what seems like a spiritual low point for the man, we find something close to the bedrock of Cohen’s myth, a quick glance at his otherworldly essence.
The DVD release of Bird on a Wire bills it as ‘Tony Palmer’s lost movie’. The story goes that when Palmer finished the film, he brought it to Cohen, who rejected it for being “too confrontational”. In a generous but foolish gesture, Palmer gave Cohen the raw footage to re-edit. Cohen produced the film two years and $300,000 later, showing it once at its debut in 1974 and never releasing it again. Three decades later, the footage was stumbled upon by chance and painstakingly re-assembled by Palmer and Marty Machet’s son into the film you can watch today. To me, there’s no more perfect expression of Cohen at this stage in his life than the image of his hunched frame, pouring over footage of himself and trying to shape it into an unreachable ideal.
You could argue about whether it makes sense to talk about the ‘real’ Leonard Cohen, but that seems besides the point. We are all perpetual curators of the person we present to ourselves and the world but there is always an indelible truth to our fictions. Leonard understood the porous border between honesty and artifice better than anyone. Call it the wishful thinking of a fan but it is easy to believe that in the crucible of this disastrous tour, it became possible to discern the contours of the man pushing against the shroud of his mythology.
Another Cohen quote: “Poetry is just the evidence of life. If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash.” His was a life that burned better than most.
Note: all biographical information about Cohen was taken from I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen by Sylvie Simmons.