A legendary songwriter and performer restored

DVD re-release shows a youthful Leonard Cohen in his prime

Hide your mothers: Leonard Cohen is returned to his prime in the digitally restored Bird on a Wire, now available on DVD. Courtesy Holly Cybulski

In Bird on a Wire, British director Tony Palmer (Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels) documents Leonard Cohen’s 1972 European concert tour. A version of the film saw an original limited release in 1974, and from there was thought to have disappeared forever in the dustbin of history.

That was until Palmer found nearly 300 rusted film spools in a Hollywood warehouse and rebuilt and re-edited a new cut in time for Cohen’s 76th birthday.

I fell in love with the Cohen of The Future – apocalyptic and ironic with a trawling, ancient voice. But Bird on a Wire fleshes out a more youthful Cohen that many younger listeners didn’t experience the first time around.

Palmer’s opening sequence sees a handsome, dark-haired Cohen on stage in Tel Aviv, visibly suffering at the sight of aggressive security staff manhandling his fans. Frustrated, he leaves the stage but first suggests that the crowd come with him to a more peaceful venue to “find a new scene” because “this scene isn’t working here.”

It’s classic Cohen, who is somehow simultaneously a cantor who has returned to his ancestral land, and a hipster aesthete in a green track jacket.

Palmer captures the chaos and glamour of life on the road. We see Cohen traveling, writing alone in hotel rooms and being schmoozed by beautiful women backstage. We see his many loves – bandmates, fans and would-be lovers.

The documentary’s 17 live performances are an absolute joy to watch. Cohen clearly lives to perform and his voice provides an earnest backdrop for his legendary lyrics.

Beneath the gloomy caricature that Cohen became as the ’70s became the ’80s, there is a poet who is obviously grateful to create music and share it with an audience.

“With the limits of my own talent I’m obliged to do my own thing,” Cohen admits to a journalist.

This is the Cohen your mother had a crush on before you were born – intense, romantic, funny and oh, yeah, a total genius.

Published in Volume 65, Number 2 of The Uniter (September 9, 2010)

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