Posted by morlockjeff on August 21, 2010
“If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash.” - Leonard Cohen
Missing in action since it was first filmed by Tony Palmer in 1972, BIRD ON A WIRE, a documentary account of Leonard Cohen’s European tour, has finally surfaced on DVD after being painstakenly restored frame by frame by the director who recently recounted for the DVD release the long, complicated history of this landmark document. For Cohen fans, the movie is essential viewing and just as candid, raw and intimate as D.A. Pennebaker’s remarkable Bob Dylan portrait, Don’t Look Back (1967), which covered that singer/songwriter’s tour of England in 1965.
The movie opens with a chaotic concert situation in Tel Aviv as aggressive security guards in orange coats try to stop audience members from approaching the stage and interacting with Cohen and his band. One is immediately struck by Cohen’s calm and sensible tone in the face of what appears to be a fascist police state as he says to them, “I know you’re just trying to do your job but you don’t have to do it with your fists.” His words have little effect though and so he returns to performing, introducing his next number with, “I’d like to sing you a song for the man in orange.” This doesn’t sit well either and with the situation becoming intolerable, Cohen leaves the stage saying, “Let’s disperse quietly and be together somewhere else because the scene isn’t worth it….there’s no point in starting a war right now.”
BIRD ON A WIRE, which does not follow the chronological order of the 1972 20-city tour that began in Dublin, jumps around instead in a seemingly random fashion but the overall effect is an unromanticized portrait of life on the road – a casual, homemade production that unfolds in vignettes like a diary video, some of it shot in color, some in black and white. There is footage of Cohen walking on the beach, swimming nude in a pool, fielding questions from journalists, flirting with numerous beautiful women backstage (one can only imagine his countless sexual conquests), showering with band mates and agonizing over his performance, saying more than once, “I disgraced myself, I have.” There is also a refreshing honesty in his directness with fans, the media and his own touring group, whether he is joking with a backup musician about a poor performance (“It sounded like banging”) to answering a reporter who asks him, “What is success for you?” “Success is survival,” Cohen replies without a trace of smugness.
Cohen fans in particular will get a kick out of seeing and hearing some of the musicians who appeared on his early albums such as organist/producer Bob Johnston and backup vocalist Jennifer Warnes, who would later enjoy top forty fame with “The Right Time of the Night” and “Up Where We Belong” (the theme from An Officer and a Gentleman), and perform a tribute album to Cohen, Famous Blue Raincoat.
To set the record straight, Palmer’s initial cut of BIRD ON A WIRE was never screened publicly. The BBC saw a rough cut and agreed to buy it in that state but Cohen felt uncomfortable with the existing cut for several reasons, one being that he looked “exhausted” most of the time. In reality, he was and had made it clear from the beginning that he didn’t like touring and often felt like “some parrot chained to his stand night after night.” The main reason that the documentary even got made was because his manager Marty Machat, thought it might broaden Cohen’s exposure, and because he wanted a visual record of the tour for he feared it might be his client’s last one. So Palmer’s rough cut and all of his footage was given back to Machat but there are varying accounts of what happened next.
Yet, on the basis of this DVD which includes Palmer’s original cut, the above criticism doesn’t jive at all and in fact, the correct title of the documentary is BIRD ON A WIRE, named after Cohen’s song, not Bird on the Wire. OK, so it’s the difference of one word but the difference of one word makes a world of difference to a poet like Cohen. The only criticism of BIRD ON A WIRE I have is one that is reflective of its era and time; Palmer includes some atrocity footage from the Vietnam War that is underscored by a Cohen song and is unusually explicit and hard to watch. Plus it’s not needed; Cohen’s lyrics produce a similarly powerful, resonate but less manipulative vision of man’s conflicted nature.
For the detailed backstory on Palmer’s restoration of BIRD ON A WIRE, I highly recommend you check out his notes on the film at http://files.dvdnote.com/press/TPDVD166/tpdvd166_tony_palmer.pdf. Cohen fans may also want to check out another Leonard Cohen documentary that is being distributed by the MVD Entertainment Group, Leonard Cohen’s Lonesome Heroes, in which the poet’s life and influences are chronicled and discussed by a panel of experts including Judy Collins (who provides the most illuminating insights about the songwriter), Rolling Stone writers Anthony DeCurtis and Michaeal Lydon, and Cohen’s fellow Buddist monk Kigen. An informative primer on the artist with a wealth of interesting archival clips and concert snippets, this documentary is somewhat dry and academic in tone but it does shine a light on some of the unexpected musical influences on Cohen’s art such as Hank Williams, Ray Charles, Tex Ritter (who appears in a clip singing “High Noon”) and the poetry of Federico Garcia Lorca.
Certainly there have been many documentary and concert films with Leonard Cohen as the focus. Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Leonard Cohen (1965), a National Film Board of Canada documentary, directed by Donald Brittain and Don Owen, offers an intriguing look at the poet at an earlier stage in his career before he had even released his first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967). And Leonard Cohen: Live at the Isle of Wight 1970, which was recently assembled in 2009 by documentary filmmaker Murray Lerner from unused footage from his original 1997 documentary, Message to Love: The Isle of Wight Festival. In the latter, Cohen was only featured performing one number, “Suzanne,” but Lerner’s new compilation includes all of the Cohen footage from the Isle of Wight concert and among the selected songs are “One of Us Cannot Be Wrong,” “Nothing Will Be Fine,” and “The Stranger Song,” which was used by director Robert Altman to open his ethereal western, McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971).
I was hoping Leonard Cohen: Live at the Isle of Wight 1970 would get a wider theatrical release than just New York and a few cities but it looks like one will have to get a Blu-Ray player to see it at this point or watch it on Netflix. In the meantime, treat yourself to Tony Palmer’s BIRD ON A WIRE which has risen like a phoenix from the ashes of time.
http://mvdb2b.com/b2b/ MVD entertainment group
http://www.leonardcohen.com Official Cohen site
Various Positions: A Life of Leonard Cohen by Ira B. Nadel
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