Features

Freeze Frame: Hallelujah, Leonard Cohen

The history of a life captured on film

Ladies and Gentlemen… Mr. Leonard Cohen
Courtesy of the NFB

He was a phenom as a young poet in Montreal in the fifties, and in recent years he evolved into a sage—a singer-songwriter dividing his time between Quebec and California. In a career that spanned six decades, he commanded the attention of countless people around the globe who love poetry and music. Leonard Cohen never won the Nobel Prize, nor was he ever Canada’s poet laureate, but he’ll be remembered far longer than many of those who have received such honours.

Cohen’s main legacies are his songs, poems and novels, but it’s interesting to follow in films his trajectory from Montreal poet to world-renowned composer and singer in films. His charisma, Hebraic good looks and articulate presence are palpable in Ladies and Gentlemen…Mr. Leonard Cohen (1965), the charming documentary made about him by Donald Brittain and Don Owen for the NFB. Already recognised for his serious but controversial poetry—one of his first books was entitled Flowers for Hitler—Cohen is at his youthful literary best, talking to his family, reading poems to rapt audiences and giving a press conference with his poetry mentor, Irving Layton.

Six years later, Cohen had transformed himself into an acclaimed singer-songwriter, famous for the romantic ballad “Suzanne.” A generation of cinephiles will never forget the intuitive way Robert Altman inserted Cohen’s songs into his moody revisionist Western—shot in snowy rural British Columbia — McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971). Soon after, England’s best filmic chronicler of composers, Tony Palmer, captured Cohen at the height of his early popularity on the world stage with Bird on a Wire (1974).

The ’80s saw three fascinating appearances by Cohen on film. Legendary CBC director Harry Rasky’s Song of Leonard Cohen (1980) is an intimate study, capturing the singer-songwriter returning to poetry and visiting his old Montreal haunts with family and friends. Three years later, I Am A Hotel, a Cohen performance art piece appeared, co-written by him and set rather romantically in Toronto’s King Edward Hotel. In 1988, the BBC produced the lovely full-length doc Songs from the Life of Leonard Cohen, which offers insights into his creative process while showing terrific concert footage.

Armelle Brusq’s Leonard Cohen: Spring 1996 documents the artist during his Buddhist California years—an essential part of his life. Finally, Lian Lunson’s I’m Your Man (2005) shows Cohen as an icon, with performers ranging from Rufus Wainwright to Nick Cave to Jarvis Cocker singing songs the Montreal poet had composed over the years.

No doubt more films about Cohen will appear. Quite a few of his concerts were filmed and he was interviewed many times. But nothing will replace the joy of seeing Cohen perform live or reading a favourite poem or hearing for the first time one of his great songs. Whether it’s “Suzanne” or “So Long Marianne” or “Everybody Knows” or “I’m Your Man” or “Bird on a Wire” or “Hallelujah” or any number of others, those moments will stay with you forever. Thanks to those memories, as well as the books, albums and films, Leonard Cohen will never truly die. Hallelujah.

Ladies and Gentlemen… Mr. Leonard Cohen , Donald Brittain & Don Owen, National Film Board of Canada