What Makes Leonard Cohen A Favourite Among Filmmakers?

Neeti Singhal - 62 weeks ago

There is much about the singer after his entry into the music world but not very much from his life before. That’s what makes this short episode in the life of Cohen, shot in black and white, an apt portrait of the artist and something to treasure.

(A still from Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Leonard Cohen)

As the news of Nick Broomfield’s Sundance nominee, Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love floats around, one wonders what has kept Cohen a constant subject of inspection and literary analysis. He remains a central figure in a lot of films and books and his songs, of course, have found a voice across time and boundaries. Given his global appeal, he is as much literature and art himself as he is a creator of it. Kurt Cobain, in one of his songs, wrote, "Give me a Leonard Cohen afterworld, So I can sigh eternally."

Cohen has had a long journey. He started out as a poet with astounding success. His books included Let Us Compare Mythologies (1956), The Spice Box of Earth (1961) and Flowers for Hitler (1964). Pre-musician Cohen was fully formed, self-effacing, with a distinct mark for himself. One of the earliest documentaries, Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Leonard Cohen, is an imaginative profile of the poet, novelist. This 1965 film, a collaboration between National Film Board and Oscar nominee, Donald Brittain, follows the 30 year old, strutting around the streets of his hometown, Montreal, in the thick of winter when he was a man of growing literary repute with books, awards and admirers already under his belt. There is much about the singer after his entry into the music world but not very much from his life before. That’s what makes this short episode in the life of Cohen, shot in black and white, an apt portrait of the artist and something to treasure. We enter the world of this self-fashioning melancholic man in his everyday going arounds. He reads out his poetry as he moves between the hymnal verses to getting the audiences in knots with his immutable wit. We follow him as he houses three-dollars-a-night hotel rooms and spends time with his friends or as he immerses himself in his writing. One can only see the constancy in his demeanor on and off stage which says tons about how comfortable he was facing a crowd. He was a confident young man which showed in his craft as well as in the way he presented himself.

(Leonard Cohen with his manager John Hammond)

His contrasting personality of shifting tones was not only evident on stage, but this king of allusion played the same game with his readers, in text. He had a knack for making a certain promise and torturously practicing deliberate omission in a somewhat teasing routine, leaving the reader confused. What better exemplifies that than his book titled Flowers to Hitler? Given his fascination with Nazis, Holocaust and concentration camps and his constant referencing to this universal tragedy, using it to express feelings of personal entrapment, one would think the poems would be exactly that. But surprise, surprise! There are only slight, scattered and frivolous poetic expressions around the alleged topic. But this contrast in what is offered versus what is presented is what makes Cohen a master of his art.

Along with an honest show of vulnerability, Cohen has an immense ability to carefully perceive the smallest details and deliver them in a poetic meter – “She feeds you tea and oranges that come all the way from China”. Some say, to listen to his songs in his voice is overbearing but his words can bear all the weight of flaws in his musicality. His ennui-ridden songs are a persuasive argument which draws you in to no escape. His painful introspection has a warm feeling of melancholic escapism into sexual ecstasy.

(Leonard Cohen shared an intimate relationship with singer Janis Joplin)

Every Cohen lover knows that he drew his music from experience; all his songs had a very personal story behind them. He did not mince his words when he told of them in his concerts. Not many know that his song titled Chelsea Hotel #2, was about his brief, intimate interaction with the singing sensation, Janis Joplin. Chelsea Hotel was Cohen’s favourite place to be when in New York because he was told he would find people there with a similar bent of artistic mind. Introducing this song in some of his concerts, he admitted to it being about Joplin, which, he, after her death, came to regret calling it “sole indiscretion”.

The book ‘The Holy or the Broken’ suggests Cohen’s entry into the world of music wasn’t without hesitance. But when despite good reviews, his book, Beautiful Losers, only sold a couple thousand copies, Cohen’s frustration directed him to music for commercial and artistic purposes.

In the world of music, he was overshadowed by Bob Dylan, given that there was much resemblance between the two. From their absurdist verses to the same music producer, John Hammond, to their overall styles; Cohen got sidestepped as a Dylan wannabe. Despite the superficial similarities, Cohen and Dylan were completely different people. A famous incident from when the two met at a café in Paris, is a perfect illustration of the fact. Upon meeting, Dylan praised Cohen’s Hallelujah and asked him how long it took for him to write the song to which Cohen said, “a couple of years”. He, then, asked Dylan the same about one of his songs to which Dylan said “15 minutes”. Cohen was obsessed with perfection. In an interview he said of an unfinished song, “I’ve got the melody, and it’s a guitar tune, a really good tune, and I have tried year after year to find the right words. The song bothers me so much that I’ve actually started a journal chronicling my failures to address this obsessive concern with this melody.”

There is much to be said about his distinctive personality, his poems, his songs and there is much to be said about the man himself. He unarguably remains a charismatic film subject, which explains why a lot of filmmakers and writers were drawn to him (and still are) and why he has been a central figure for many for their own creative countenance! We will always have his songs but for the rest of him, we are thankful for the hours and hours of documented footage.

(Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Leonard Cohen is currently playing on myNK)


Leonard Cohen / Bob Dylan / Kurt Cobain / Suzanne / John Hammond / Janis Joplin / Poetry / Sundance Film Festival / Nick Broomfield / Hallelujah / The Holy or the Broken

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of The Film Hashery.

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