Friday, December 2, 2016

Everybody Knows: The Ubiquitous Leonard Cohen in the Movies

A young Leonard Cohen, in Donald Brittain's 1965 documentary Ladies and Gentlemen...Mr. Leonard Cohen.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Leonard Cohen since his passing earlier this month, unexpectedly but at the ripe old age of 82 – remembering the great concert of his I attended in Toronto in 2008, the humbleness he displayed on stage, and the sheer joy he felt in being so loved so late in his life. You just know he could not have imagined this highly positive outcome of his career trajectory. My good friend Bram Eisenthal, who worked then at Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, the synagogue that Cohen attended in Montreal, and whose cantor and choir are featured in several of the songs in Cohen’s poignant last album You Want it Darker (2016), sent him my concert review – and while I have no idea if he actually saw it, much less read it, I was thrilled to know that he might have. And as a Montrealer, I've visited where he lived and can recall sitting in Ben’s Delicatessen, a while before it permanently closed, not really enjoying the food (the quality of its fare had declined) but still content to know I was eating in one of Leonard’s hangouts.

A couple of days after the announcement of Leonard Cohen’s death, I was watching a fine 2016 French movie, Irreplaceable (Médecin de champagne), part of the lineup at Toronto’s edition of the European Union Film Festival, about a country doctor (François Cluzet) whose life is upended when he develops a tumour and has to allow a female medical practitioner (Marianne Denicourt) to help him in his duties. Late in the movie, both doctors attend a village dance where a country band slides into a decent rendition of Cohen’s classic “Hallelujah,” a moment which prompted a bit of a murmur from the audience as it seemed so particularly apt to pay tribute to Leonard in this way so soon after the shocking news of his death. (The moment was entirely serendipitous, of course, but still…) But it also struck me as nothing new, as I can’t think of any artist who has been featured the way he has in movies. It’s not simply that his songs or covers of them have graced so many movies and TV shows over the years (more than 50 at least), but the diversity of the filmmakers who have utilized his songs in their works has intrigued me and made me ponder on why he, of all singers-songwriters out there, has struck such a chord with so many of them.

To get an idea of how pervasive his music has been in the cinema, consider the artists who have been attracted to his work: the late German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who featured Cohen’s music in several projects, including his acclaimed features Beware of a Holy Whore (1971) and Fox and His Friends (1975) and his controversial 1980 TV miniseries Berlin Alexanderplatz; the late experimental Belgian director Chantal Akerman, who chose Cohen’s immortal "Suzanne" for Portrait of a Young Girl at the End of the 1960s in Brussels (1994); and so many other major or well-known filmmakers, from any number of countries, including, of course, Robert Altman (McCabe & Mrs. Miller, 1971, which may be the first use of Cohen’s songs in films. (Altman would also feature Cohen’s classic “Bird on a Wire” in his lesser film A Wedding in 1978.) Others include Nanni Moretti (Dear Diary, 1993), documentarian Chris Marker (Le 20 heures dans les camps, 1993), Olivier Assayas (L’eau froid [Cold Water] (1994), Atom Egoyan (Exotica, 1994), Oliver Stone (Natural Born Killers, 1994), Lars von Trier (Breaking the Waves, 1996), Noah Baumbach (Mr. Jealousy, 1998), Curtis Hanson (Wonder Boys, 2000), and Neil Jordan (The Good Thief, 2003). And Cohen has to be the only singer whose songs have been picked to grace movies by both an Israeli filmmaker, Assi Dayan (the incendiary Life According to Agfa, 1992, which used half a dozen Cohen tunes, ending with the prophetic “Who by Fire” during its powerful conclusion) and a Palestinian one, Elia Suleiman (Chronicle of a Disappearance, 1996). Even French iconoclast (and reported anti-Semite) Jean-Luc Godard stuck Cohen’s “Take This Waltz” into a 1988 short film (Puissances de la parole).

His songs were also part of some of my favourite but lesser-known movies, such as Martine Dugowson’s moving French drama Portraits Chinois (1996), the poignant Italian epic The Best of Youth (2003) and Alan Berliner’s touching and provocative documentary about his insomnia, Wide Awake (2007). It’s also apt that Cohen’s "I’m Your Man" and "Dance Me to the End of Love" were played in Richard J. Lewis’ maladroit adaptation of Mordecai Richler’s last novel Barney’s Version (2010). Richler was the other famous Jewish Montrealer who achieved worldwide fame, though unlike Cohen, he regularly chose to prick the parochial bubble of his own community as well as the larger French Canadian one in his city. (Compare the rather muted political tributes to Richler on his passing in 2001 to the effusive praise given Cohen by, among others, Quebec’s premier and Montreal’s mayor, both obviously fans of the man.)

Nutsa Kukhianidze in The Good Thief (2002).

Then there are the several movies named after Cohen songs, including the U.S. movie Bird on a Wire (1990), a Slovak movie, Suzanne (1996), a 2001 U.K. film, A Thousand Kisses Deep and Canadian Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz (2011). As for the Cohen songs most used, “Suzanne” and “Hallelujah” lead the pack (with Jeff Buckley’s cover of the latter also in heavy rotation in the movies), but “Sisters of Mercy,” “Bird on a Wire,” “Take This Waltz,” “Dance Me to the End of Love,” “Everybody Knows” and “So Long, Marianne,” pop up frequently, too. And I haven’t even gone into the myriad TV shows which have featured Cohen’s songs, an extraordinary cross-section of different types of programs, including Homicide: Life on the Street, The L Word, Joan of Arcadia, Lie to Me,Veronica Mars, Parenthood, Criminal Minds, Homeland, Lilyhammer , Revenge, Coronation Street, TransparentTrue DetectiveiZombie, and The Americans (the season four finale, again including “Who By Fire”).

Why Cohen? Some of his popularity, obviously, is due to the timeless sound of his songs; as Kevin Courrier pointed out in Critics at Large, the tunes utilized in McCabe & Mrs. Miller – “The Stranger Song,” “Sisters of Mercy” and “Winter Lady" – almost appear to have been specifically written for this Western. And using Cohen’s unique “Suzanne” (1967) on a soundtrack encapsulates the sixties in such a memorable manner.

But Cohen’s music speaks to any decade in which it was composed. When I reviewed his Toronto concert, I remarked on how his fantastic song, “Democracy” – with lyrics like “It's coming to America first, / The cradle of the best and of the worst. / It's here they got the range and the machinery for change / And it's here they got the spiritual thirst” – evoked the then candidacy of a young American Senator named Barack Obama who was running for his nation’s highest office and promising so much change and hope, some of which he did realize. (Clearly, the recent election of Obama’s polar opposite, Donald Trump, evokes America at its worst.) But Cohen’s songs often have that emotional effect. Consider “Everybody Knows”:

Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That's how it goes
Everybody knows

It’s a cynical and rueful song and, not surprisingly, has been used in any number of movies. Most recently it played over the closing credits of Todd Phillip’s minor 2016 film War Dogs, which told the true story of a couple of young American arms dealers who eventually went afoul of the U.S. government. Like the film itself, that specific use of “Everybody Knows” lacks nuance (Alan Moyle's 1990 teen rebel movie Pump Up the Volume used the same song much more effectively), underscoring the depths of depravity the duo sank to in an obvious way, but the song is still so powerful that it works despite Phillips’ hamfisted use of it. Cohen’s moody music can surmount obstacles like that.

A scene from Life According to Agfa (1992).

More than its appropriateness for the big and small screens, I think, too, that Cohen’s spiritual and sensual qualities shine through his music and touch the souls of those who choose to have his music illustrating their films and TV series. I like writer Pico Iyer’s description of Cohen, in liner notes of the 2-CD set The Essential Leonard Cohen (2002): “Cohen takes us, at heart, into a mythic place, an ageless space alight with goddesses and God, where we see a lone figure walking down the road, in dark Buddhist robes, with a Torah in one hand and a picture of a woman in the other. Always in our sight even as he disappears into the dark.” Something about his beautifully wrought and highly poetic songwriting strikes any thinking and feeling person with such an impact that one only has to begin to hear one of Leonard’s songs – pretty much any of them, in fact – pop up in a film or TV episode to start paying closer attention and, more often than not, how the song plays out makes that sequence or moment even more powerful. (See: the melancholy “Sisters of Mercy” playing as the prostitutes come on the scene in McCabe & Mrs. Miller; the way “Who By Fire,” taken from a prayer said on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, illuminates the dilemmas and fates of the characters in the crucial season four finale of The Americans; the ironic use of that same tune in Life According to Agfa as the denizens of a Tel Aviv bar meet their deaths in an orgy of bloodletting and murder; the illicit and very erotic lovemaking scene set to “Take This Waltz” as the camera circles the couple in Sarah Polley’s movie of the same name; “The Future” underlying the grim odyssey of the young killers in Natural Born Killers. There is no end of examples of that sort in Cohen’s musical filmic oeuvre.)

So many of his late-career tunes – from 1984’s “Hallelujah,” which may be the most covered song in history (a remarkable 300 versions at least) to 1988’s “Everybody Knows,” “Democracy” (1992) and “A Thousand Kisses Deep” (2001), performed in a spoken-word rendition during his 2008/09 concert tours – attest to his continued relevance, through to his end, not something all famous artists get to enjoy during their careers. (Whatever happened to Stevie Wonder and Elton John?) And the consistent brilliance of his song craft likely ensures that his music will be appearing in movies and on TV far into the future. You could have made a case for Cohen garnering the Nobel Prize for Literature instead of Bob Dylan (which I have no problem with) as Cohen was at least his equal if not his better as a songwriter and Cohen also wrote novels and penned books of poetry. (Dylan himself reportedly considered Cohen his closest compatriot as a songwriter.)

The title track from Leonard Cohen’s last, prophetic album You Want It Darker (2016) has already shown up on the British TV series Peaky Blinders last June, in anticipation of the album’s official October release, but I doubt that will be its only appearance on television or in the movies. As Cohen, an Old Testament prophet in modern 21st-century guise, put it in that song:

If you are the dealer
I’m out of the game
If you are the healer
Means I’m broken and lame
If thine is the glory
Then mine must be the shame
You want it darker 

We kill the flame
Magnified, sanctified
Be Thy Holy Name
Vilified, crucified
In the human frame
A million candles burning
For the help that never came
You want it darker

Hineni Hineni
I’m ready, my Lord

Leonard Cohen was ready to go, it seems – but even if we, his lifelong fans, were not ready for him to do so, we will always be able to enjoy his immortal songs and albums, not least of all in the visual media that so many have imprinted his songs and words upon, their own tributes to the music that has made such a difference to us all. May Leonard Cohen’s memory be a blessing!
Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at Toronto's Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre, the Prosserman Jewish Community Centre, and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he is currently teaching a course on groundbreaking movies. He lectured on The Image of the Jew in Film and Television: Realities and Fantasies in London, Ontario, last September and October.

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