Thorough it’s not, but the concert documentary “Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man” gathers solid interviews, anecdotes, recitations and tribute performances that present a fairly engaging portrait of the wry, dark poet who became a distinct voice in pop music.
“I’m Your Man” is unlikely to appeal much beyond Cohen’s loyal fans or bring converts to the brooding whimsy and dense wordplay of his songs. The movie does do a far better job than a couple of 1990s tribute albums in matching Cohen’s sobering lyricism with kindred spirits who can do justice to the tunes during a concert in his honor in Sydney, Australia.
Fellow somber travelers such as Nick Cave, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Rufus and Martha Wainwright and Beth Orton are among those covering songs that span most of Cohen’s 40-year career.
The reclusive Cohen offers warm and amusing recollections and teams with U2 for a version of “Tower of Song” as the documentary’s musical finale, though the strangely cloistered, unsatisfying cover winds up anticlimactic after some grand live renditions by other performers.
With Mel Gibson’s film company producing, music-video maker and former actress Lian Lunson captures music producer Hal Willner’s Cohen tribute concert “Came So Far for Beauty” at the Sydney Opera House in 2005.
Interspersed between the performances are frank, wistful segments with Cohen, who also recites some of his poetry. Canadian-born Cohen discusses his boyhood, his father’s death, the Montreal poetry scene, his spiritual quest with a Zen master and the real-life woman who inspired one of his best-known songs, “Suzanne.”
Cohen, whose bass vocals often lean more toward talking along to the music than singing, also touches on his musical abilities.
“I had the title ‘poet,’ and maybe I was one for a while. Also the title ‘singer’ was kindly accorded me even though I could barely carry a tune,” Cohen recites from one of his poems.
Even so, trained singers have trouble approaching Cohen’s soulful depth when covering his songs. Willner assembles musicians who deeply respect Cohen’s songs and know what to do with them.
Cave energetically sings “I’m Your Man” and does a hushed rendition of “Suzanne.” The McGarrigle sisters and Martha Wainwright (daughter of Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III) bring beautiful, trilling harmonies to “Winter Lady,” and Wainwright, brother Rufus and Joan Wasser trade passionate verses on “Hallelujah.”
Annoyingly, Lunson drops interview segments into the middle of some performances, though she thankfully leaves intact the film’s two standouts, Orton’s achingly gorgeous rendition of “Sisters of Mercy” and Julie Christensen and Perla Batalla’s duet on “Anthem.”
Interviews with the musicians are a mixed bag. Rufus Wainwright vividly relates the first time he met Cohen, who was in his underwear, feeding tidbits of sausage to a sickly baby bird. Cave talks with wonder about the transformative day from his youth when a friend played him Cohen’s album “Songs of Love and Hate.”
U2 frontman Bono and guitarist The Edge have some nice insights, yet both grow overly grandiose in their fawning praise of Cohen (“He’s the man for me who comes down from the mountaintop with the tablets of stone, having been up there talking with the angels,” The Edge says).
Bono redeems himself with this great summation of Cohen’s grim yet playful sensibilities:
“A lot of writers have dared to walk up the edge of reason and stared into that great chasm, into the abyss,” Bono says. “Very few people have got there and kind of laughed out loud at what they saw.”