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Close Your Eyes and Listen

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Leonard Cohen is one of the most fascinating figures to have survived the ‘60s songwriter scene with his artistry intact — an elegant enigma who can look convincing as either monk or lothario, and write

Leonard Cohen:
I’m Your Man
Dir. Lian Lunson (PG-13)

piercing songs while doing it. He is so adored by peers and acolytes that it sometimes seems there are as many tribute records to him (multi-artist ones like I’m Your Fan and one-on-ones such as Jennifer Warnes’s Famous Blue Raincoat) as there are actual Leonard Cohen albums.

While fans may hope that Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man will probe the artist’s philosophy and spend some time separating myth from biographical fact, it’s actually the cinematic equivalent of one of those many tribute records — a concert movie documenting an event produced by tribute guru Hal Willner. Bits of interview material with Cohen and his celebrity admirers flesh it out, but most of this footage seems haphazard enough — U2’s Bono is interviewed leaning up against a door, for instance — that one shouldn’t judge it as anything more than behind-the-scenes color for a concert doc.

As a performance film, I’m Your Man has little to recommend it. It wasn’t staged with cameras in mind, so the photography is mundane. The performances are often very good, but an unusual number of contributors here are the sort whose stage presence distracts from their singing: Rufus Wainwright does a fine job with “Everybody Knows,” for instance, but part of the song’s sardonic wit gets lost among his rhinestones and Judy Garland mannerisms. In other words: Cohen fans will love many of these interpretations of favorite songs, but their money is best spent on the soundtrack. (See this week’s All Ears, page 40, for more.)

The soundtrack, in fact, benefits not only from the lack of visuals but from performances not included in the film (The concert has been given multiple times in at least three cities). On celluloid, Nick Cave flubs some bits of the title song; on record, the interpretation is brilliant. Teddy Thompson, seen here on one song, contributes a second to the record — “The Future” — that’s a much more inspired synthesis of his style with that of Cohen’s recording.

As for the interviews with Cohen himself, audiences won’t have to read Hal Willner’s album liner notes to guess that they were an afterthought. Maybe the songwriter was stingy with his time, maybe director Lunson’s questions weren’t very probing; whatever the reason, the fragments don’t add up to a clearer picture than most fans probably already had. Yes, it’s a pleasure just to watch Cohen talk — his mix of humility and intelligence is rare in pop icons. But viewers come away with the sense that this sometime Buddhist monk really does better in solitude, and needs more time to warm up to an interviewer’s prying eyes than I’m Your Man was able to afford him.

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