Review: ‘Leonard Cohen: Bird on a Wire,’ Portrait of an Artist in Chaos

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The brilliant poet, novelist, musician and singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, who died in November at 82, became a superstar as a senior. He brought his earnest voice and moody guitar into the 1960s counterculture when he was in his early 30s, and he made a substantial impact musically well into the 1970s. In that time, he was a cult artist on a very large scale, so to speak. But after the explosive popularity of his oft-covered 1984 song, “Hallelujah,” and a management swindle that obliged him to become a road dog to restore his income, he became an arena-filling legend and, to his hard-core fans, a prophet.

“Leonard Cohen: Bird on a Wire” is an account of a particularly fraught period in the first phase of his stardom. Directed by the British documentarian Tony Palmer, it follows Mr. Cohen and his small band — two guitarists; a bass and fiddle player; Bob Johnston, the Nashville record producer and musical near-anarchist; and the backup singers Donna Washburn and Jennifer Warnes — on a spring 1972 tour of Europe that ended in Israel. It’s a time Mr. Cohen later described as “confused and directionless.”

The movie was completed in 1974, subsequently revised (the current print contains an in-memory-of dedication to Mr. Cohen’s longtime lawyer, Marty Machat, who appears in the film and died in 1988), and only now is having a theatrical release. It follows the outline for road music documentaries that was later successfully sent up by “This Is Spinal Tap.” Mr. Cohen granted extraordinary access to Mr. Palmer and his crew. There’s footage of Mr. Cohen and his male band mates showering, even. During one backstage meet-and-greet, Mr. Cohen is baldly propositioned by a female fan, and he demurs with a combination of gentlemanly grace and camera-conscious awkwardness. He is polite and witty with interviewers. When one of them says of Mr. Johnston, “I didn’t know he was an organist,” Mr. Cohen replies, “He’s hardly aware of it himself.”

The artist’s lightheartedness, which might have been forced to begin with — while always a remarkable live performer, in the early part of his career, Mr. Cohen was also an often reluctant one — cannot hold. Technical problems plague the shows, as amplifiers unexpectedly feed back, demolishing the contemplative simplicity of the music. There’s a tense confrontation with some truculent, dissatisfied fans in Berlin. Mr. Cohen’s self-deprecating humor begins to take an edge. One night he strums his guitar and sings “Leonard Cohen/[strum]/is going to sing his songs/[strum]/of anguish and despair.” And on the last night of the tour, in Jerusalem, the artist crashes emotionally, and the question of whether he will rally provides some suspense.

Mr. Palmer captures all this with a keen eye. The movie is a worthy time capsule and a must for Cohen devotees. Its occasional meanderings into artiness, which take the form of interpolation of outside footage (war atrocities and home movies, mainly) are emblematic of the time it was made and mercifully brief.

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Leonard Cohen’s career was on the verge of complete disaster in late 1971. Songs of Love and Hate, his most recent record, peaked at #145 on the American charts – this despite containing future classics like “Famous Blue Raincoat” and “Joan of Arc.” CBS was ready to cut their losses and drop him from the label. A tour would give him the chance to regain some momentum, though Cohen hated performing live; he only reluctantly agreed to a one-month run in Europe because Songs of Love and Hate found a much bigger audience there than in the States. “He endlessly said that he didn’t want to tour,” says filmmaker Tony Palmer. “It had nothing do with him, he said. He was a poet, first and foremost.”

The rock documentary was still in its infancy, but Palmer had chronicled Cream’s farewell show at the Royal Albert Hall three years earlier. He was also a huge Cohen fan, and showed up to a meeting at the office of the musician’s manager, Marty Machat, clutching a copy of the Canadian icon’s poetry book The Energy of Slaves. He didn’t realize he had been summoned to create a tour documentary – what would become Bird on a Wire, a legendary lost film that would exist only in bootleg form until 2010, when it was painstakingly pieced together from raw footage. Nearly 40 years later, Palmer’s chronicle of what would become one of Cohen’s most legendary run of shows is finally getting an audience, starting with a run this month at New York’s Film Forum.

At the time, Machat was merely happy to meet one of his heroes and maybe get an autograph. “Marty didn’t want Leonard to know that CBS wanted to drop him,” says Palmer. “So he asked Leonard to leave the room, which I felt was bizarre. Then he asked if I would shoot a documentary about the European tour. He had a client about to be dropped from his label that didn’t want to tour, which is commercial suicide. This film was his last throw of the dice.”

Cohen was no more excited about the prospect of being trailed by a film crew throughout Europe than he was about touring in the first place, but Palmer quickly won him over. “I was holding the [poetry book] quite ostentatiously,” the director recalls, “when he said, ‘Oh, so you know I’m a poet?’ I said, ‘Yes, that’s actually how I first came across you before I saw you play the Isle of Wight [in 1970]. It was only later I realized you sang songs.’ That really broke the ice.” Before long, they were negotiating how a film might go. “He said to me, ‘I don’t want a film which portrays me as a writer of happy, little, sentimental love songs about Suzanne and Marianne,'” says Palmer. “‘My songs have quite a political, with a small p, edge. That’s what I want to be sure emerges in the film.'” The documentarian agreed, and Cohen asked if he had terms of his own. ” I said, ‘Yes, don’t ever, ever close the door on me. That would be intolerable,'” says Palmer. “He said, ‘Fine, I agree to that.’ That was that.”

The tour kicked off March 18th, 1972 at National Stadium in Dublin, Ireland. Palmer was rolling from the get-go with a four-man crew that included a camera operator, a sound man and someone tasked with moving around the heavy equipment. He handled the lights himself. Cohen also had a relatively small traveling contingent that included Machat, a skeleton road crew and a band that included backup singers Jennifer Warnes and Donna Washburn, guitarist Ron Cornelius, bassist Peter Marshall and organist Bob Johnston, a CBS producer best known for his work with Bob Dylan. “I once went on tour with Led Zeppelin and they had a mountain of people helping them,” says Palmer. “But Leonard basically had two boys and a dog doing everything. Because he didn’t have a record contract, there were no record executives or publicists anywhere. We never saw a single soul except for Leonard, his band and the road crew.”

Cohen honored his word by granting Palmer complete access to the tour, onstage and off. Stunning footage was captured of the singer personally refunding belligerent fans with money from his own pocket when a show was marred by sound problems. Palmer also filmed Cohen trying to pick up a beautiful young fan backstage (“it’s hard to come onto a girl in front of a camera”), as well as the musician taking nude laps in a swimming pool, reading his poetry in a bathtub, berating aggressive security guards in the midst of a fan riot during a Tel Aviv gig and sobbing after the final show in Jerusalem. “Part of our unspoken trust was that I’d never ask him to do things,” says Palmer. “He wrote the film as he went along. When he’s crying at the end … the camera was no more than three feet away from him. He completely ignored [it]. I was amazed we got what we got.”

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