Lost for more than 38 years Tony Palmer’s breathtakingly beautiful recreation of the original 1974 film, ‘Leonard Cohen: Bird on a Wire’, follows the musician, poet, and novelist during his lengthy and at times fractious tour across Europe. The resulting documentary is a moving and fascinatingly nuanced portrait of one of the most engaging, enigmatic and distinctive artists of his generation.
Initially commissioned by Cohen’s manager as a career epitaph following the Canadian songwriter’s premature admission that this would be his final tour, Palmer painstakingly restored his original footage from 294 rusty canisters, which were allegedly found by Frank Zappa‘s agent.
A dynamic auteur of the music documentary genre and famously uncompromising, Palmer was granted total access to Cohen and like his seminal works on the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton, the award-winning director gives the viewer a previously undiscovered insight into the individual behind the artist.
Rather than allow the very present yet often clichéd excesses of sex and drugs become the central narrative and therefore paint Cohen as an all too familiar caricature of rock and roll, Palmer chooses to highlight the brilliance of the songwriter, artist and performer. Intriguingly, the director also purposefully focuses on the lugubrious idiosyncrasies that have endeared Leonard Cohen to so many.
The performer has since articulated his own battles with alcoholism, drug addiction and depression and during the 1972 tour he earned the nickname Captain Mandrax, yet it is the music and the man behind those extremes that makes Bird on a Wire so absorbing.
The very essence of Cohen’s inimitably lingering and hauntingly unique voice is viscerally and quite beautifully illustrated during the electric live performances so serenely captured by Palmer. The amp crackles with venom and Cohen, particularly during his rendition of Suzanne, has never sounded more ethereal – a testament to the original sound dubbing tracks that were salvaged four decades after being recorded.
Stunningly lit throughout, the camera loiters on Cohen’s piercingly hollowed eyes as the lights crescendo off his bewitchingly deadpanned expression. The film also succinctly communicates the humour and occasional monotony of life on tour for a band of musicians during the 1970s. Spliced with footage of the Vietnam War, Palmer shoots the fleeting stops at non-descript airports, sterile hotel rooms and endless miles of motorway. There are genuine moments of comedy too such as the botched interview by a naïve journalist, as well as the delightful examples of Cohen’s mesmerising effect on the opposite sex.
Throughout this magnetically absorbing documentary Palmer majestically captures the sharp contrast between the way his audience reveres him and Cohen’s melancholic reluctance to understand and embrace his fame. A central theme throughout the film is the superb representation of the dichotomy between the effortless ability of the performer on stage with the shy, contemplative individual off it. This is undoubtedly where Palmer’s genius lies, as he successfully delves beneath Cohen’s morose self-deprecation to reveal more of the man and subsequently more of the artist.
Describing himself as a “broken-down nightingale,” Cohen is palpably on the cusp of an emotional breakdown and the film’s climax is further evidence of this. On the final leg of the tour, in Jerusalem, Palmer fixes the camera’s gaze on Cohen’s tear-stained eyes as the distraught singer emotionally articulates his belief that he is unworthy of such fervent adulation. Too overwrought with emotion to continue, Cohen leaves his audience gasping for more as Palmer cuts to the tearful wreck backstage. It’s a genuinely heartbreaking moment that gives a shuddering insight into Cohen’s gradually disintegrating and increasingly fragile psyche.
Bird on a Wire is primarily an intimate portrait of one of the finest and perhaps most undervalued songwriters of the 20th Century. Yet even to the uninitiated, it is so beautifully crafted and so skilfully shot that it remains a scintillating film and a landmark achievement for the genre.