Judge Gordon Sullivan considers anyone who's that lonesome a hero.
"Poetry is just the evidence of life. If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash."—Leonard Cohen
As I discussed in my review of Leonard Cohen: Live in London, Cohen was brought out of retirement when his manager took off with the famous singer-songwriter's retirement fund. This prompted Cohen to launch a world tour, and despite the fact that he hadn't played live in over a decade in most places, his public still remembered him fondly. The tour sold out, was extended, and continues as I write this. The fact that Cohen has sold out large venues with high ticket prices means there's interest in his work (and money to be made). Because of that, biographies were released in both 2009 and 2010, a lost documentary has been re-found, and several live albums have resulted both recent and vintage. We can add to this pile Leonard Cohen's Lonesome Heroes, a documentary that examines Cohen's life and work in terms of his influences and those he has in turn influenced. It's a worthy entry into the study of Cohen for those interested in how and where the Canadian genius learned his craft.
Unlike many biographical documentaries, Leonard Cohen's Lonesome Heroes isn't as concerned with strict biography. Of course his life is covered in some detail, but rather than interviewing friends and family, covering the strict chronology of Cohen's movement from McGill University to Columbia, to the Mediterranean this documentary discuss Cohen's biography in terms of his influences. By interviewing music critics and academics (including several of his biographers), the film traces when and how the singer/poet was influenced by others. These include mentoring relationships with other Canadian poets, Lorca's more distant contributions, as well as the new literary freedom offered by the Beats. The film is not afraid to stop and leave Cohen at several points to acquaint the viewer with some of these figures, offering a small portrait of these artists who helped shape Cohen. It's not just artists, either. We hear about the way in which religion has shaped Cohen's art, especially from Kigen, a Buddhist monk who has worked with Cohen.
This is not, however, a documentary for those new to Cohen. If you only bought Various Positions because you heard "Hallelujah" covered in Shrek or Cohen's own version in the Watchmen movie, this documentary is going to be overkill. I have a background in literature, familiarity with most of the sources mentioned, and I've read the work of Cohen's biographers. For me the documentary was interesting, but if you're not a fan who is (or is looking to get) serious about Cohen's work as the object of deep study, then chances are this disc is not for you. Don't mistake me, though: this disc isn't dry or boring like many academic discussions. No, the details of Cohen's life keep things interesting. Rather, I suspect those only looking to enjoy Cohen's words or voice might find all this talk of meaning and influence a bit much.
As a DVD, Leonard Cohen's Lonesome Heroes works well. The full-frame transfer is cobbled together from numerous sources, including old 16mm footage, various television appearances by Cohen, the talking-head interviews, and more recent video of the singer. Because of this the video is never going to look reference quality, but its free of any serious compression artifacts or authoring problems. The simple Dolby 2.0 stereo track keeps Cohen's music lively, with no distortion or hiss that I heard, and the talking heads are easily understandable despite the lack of subtitles. The main extra is a 7-minute featurette called "Collins on Cohen," where Judy Collins, one of Cohen's early defenders, discusses her relationship to the man and his music. The other extra is a collection of text bios for the contributors. My only complaint about the disc is the lack of extras: several short snippets of Cohen performances are shown, and it would have put this disc over the top and made it a treasure for fans if some of those performances could have been included in their entirety as an extra.
There's no doubt that Leonard Cohen's music will live on as a shining example of beauty and the depths of a poet's soul. There's nothing wrong with fans stopping their appreciation there. For those with a more scholarly inclination, Leonard Cohen's Lonesome Heroes offers a glimpse into the world that inspired Cohen, shedding some small light on where the fruits of his genius had their sowing. Anyone who considers him or herself a fan of Cohen's work would not regret giving Lonesome Heroes a rental, even if the material is ultimately more than they desire.
Leonard Cohen, and his Lonesome Heroes, are not guilty.
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