Leonard Cohen: Bird On A Wire and Songs From The Road

Bird On A Wire
(MVD Entertainment Group)
Rating: ★★★★☆

Songs From the Road
(Columbia/Legacy)
Rating: ★★★½☆

If you liked Don’t Look Back, you’ll love this: A true testament to a legend’s artistry, director Tony Palmer’s (200 Motels) Bird On A Wire is an utterly essential addition to any Leonard Cohen-o-phile’s collection. Last year, having found and painstakingly restored original footage long thought lost in the sands of time, Palmer has now finished this intimate depiction of Cohen nearly four decades after starting it. The shockingly candid film takes you on a backstage journey with Cohen, his band, handlers and hangers-on, as they trek from Ireland to Israel on a 20-date tour in 1972.

While riding shotgun with Cohen & Co., you witness the songwriter reading poetry, uncontrollably wooing women, swimming in the nude, eating acid on his way to the stage and other road-worn indulgences. But that’s not what makes this such a compelling rock doc. Of course, there are the 17 spellbinding performances of outright Cohen classics like “Avalanche,” “Chelsea Hotel” and “Famous Blue Raincoat” – each as bone-chilling and hauntingly serene as their original recordings, if not more. But, those aren’t what most compel the viewer either. What makes Bird On A Wire so engrossing is the way it captures Cohen’s growing unease and anxiety while he was ascending to the peak of his popularity.

As the tour progresses through malfunctioning sound systems, unruly audiences and bumbling interviewers, Cohen struggles to come to grips with the gravity of his own success. It’s a struggle that increasingly finds its way to the stage, plaguing some performances and yielding sheer brilliance in others – culminating in Jerusalem, where Cohen has a mid-show meltdown. Claiming he “can’t fake it,” he retreats to his dressing room, deathly afraid to return to the stage, beyond which thousands of fans feverishly wait. He’s eventually talked off the ledge and persuaded to finish the show, which he does with a stunning rendition of “So Long, Marianne” that ends with him in tears.

At 73, Cohen seems a little more well-adjusted on Songs From The Road, a more traditional tour souvenir. It’s a live CD/DVD combo featuring 12 performances, culled from his acclaimed 2009 world tour. If you saw him play in the flesh, here’s a chance to relive a dozen memories. And if you’re still kicking yourself for not pulling off a diamond heist to get enough money for tickets, here’s a glimpse into what you missed. On those terms it’s well done, but Songs doesn’t offer the revelatory riches and fascinating insights into Leonard Cohen, the man, that dominate Bird On A Wire. Still, despite a misplaced alto solo here and there, the 2009 performances – taken from locales as widespread as Tel Aviv and Coachella – show Cohen crooning in the moments of vocal tenderness and well-aged beauty that made his high-ticket prices worth every last penny.