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DVD Review: Leonard Cohen – Bird on a Wire

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In 1972 Canadian poet and musician Leonard Cohen was at the height of his popularity both in his native country and abroad. The antithesis of the rock and roll gods who normally dominate popular music and fill venues wherever they play, Cohen captivated audiences and listeners with the unabashed sexuality and intellect of his work. Even today, well into his 70s, he remains a charismatic figure and retains the ability to enthral audiences the world over. Somehow, even those who might not have sufficient knowledge of the English language to grasp the nuances of his words are held as if in thrall when he climbs on stage. A true troubadour of the heart and soul, nothing seems to impede his ability to communicate with an audience.

However, what we have witnessed over the last couple of years, whether in person or on DVD, are a master in his declining years. Though even now there are few performers able to match his power to connect with an audience, what must it have been like to see him when he was at the peak of his prowess? While the release last year of footage taken from his performance at the Isle of Wight in 1970 gave us some idea as to his abilities, the conditions in which the concert took place — due to rioting by the audience and other crazy circumstances he ended up not taking the stage until around two in the morning — did not make it ideal for viewing him at his best. While it was amazing to see him calm down close to half a million people who had gone as far as setting fire to the stage after nearly five days of bedlam, it wasn’t what anyone would call a typical Cohen concert, if there could be such a thing, from the period.

Two years after that performance Cohen embarked on a 20-city tour that would take him from Dublin, Ireland to Jerusalem accompanied by a film crew under the direction of British documentarian, film, theatre and opera director, author and critic, Tony Palmer. Probably best known for his astounding 17-part television history of pop music, All You Need Is Love, by 1972 Palmer had already directed 23 movies including concert films of Cream (Cream Farewell Concert 1968), Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels, and the documentary Ginger Baker In Africa. For some reason though, Cohen wasn’t happy with Palmer’s edit of the footage and requested it be re-edited by a person of his choice. Unfortunately the result was so botched that the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), whic had commissioned the film, refused delivery and it was never broadcast.

Fast forward to 2009 when Palmer was informed that the original footage, something like 200 cans of film, had been found in a warehouse. While some of the footage was in dubious condition, the sound was in perfect shape. So Palmer set to the painstaking task of sorting and restoring miles of film with the result that almost 40 years after it was originally shot, Bird On A Wire has been released on DVD, distributed by MVD Entertainment. While the story behind the movie is almost enough to make it worth seeing in itself, you’ll soon discover this is no mere curiosity piece. Rather it is a masterful piece of work by a gifted and experienced documentary filmmaker.

The film follows Cohen and his band off and on stage as they wend their way east across Europe from Great Britain until their final two concerts in Israel, in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Palmer has chosen to open the film with footage of the second to last concert in Tel Aviv, where once again we find Cohen in the position of having to try and pour oil onto troubled waters. This time it’s not the audience who riot, but the security personnel who go over the top. At one point during the concert Cohen invited audience members at the back to come and sit down in what he saw as an open space in front of the stage so they could hear and see better. Perhaps he should have checked with the bouncers beforehand, for when people started to come down to the front of the stage and sit, they were forcibly removed. In spite of Cohen’s pleas for restraint, things quickly descended into chaos and the concert couldn’t go on.

What we don’t know at the time, and which gradually becomes clear over the course of the film, is at some point early on in the tour something had gone wrong with the sound equipment they were using. As a result the band had to make do without the use of on-stage monitors — meaning they were virtually unable to hear themselves — and the whole system eventually feeding back if they exceeded a certain volume. On one occasion we saw Cohen invite those in the furthest reaches of an auditorium who were having difficulty hearing to come up and sit on stage with the band so they could hear. It’s a testament to the respect audiences held Cohen in that when he asked that only those who were truly having difficulties come up on stage, they listened to him. Instead of the mad rush you might have expected upon the issuing of this invitation, only those who weren’t able to hear came forward while everybody else stayed in their seats.

While that is a rather extreme example, it typifies how well the film captured the rapport Cohen had with his audience. Some of the lighter moments included him chiding the audience for starting to clap for a song after he’d only played a few chords, reminding them that all his songs sound the same because he only knows a couple of chords, so how could they possibly know what song he’s about to sing? What’s truly remarkable about those moments are how warmly the audience responded and the affectionate laughter that met these and other self-deprecating comments he would make.

Aside from the fact that some of the footage was in black and white and it was obviously shot on film, such was Palmer’s skill as a director there were times while watching that it’s easy to forget the footage is nearly 40 years old. It was far harder to maneuver cameras and crew in those days, yet somehow he and his people managed to not only capture remarkably intimate concert footage, they were obviously so unobtrusive Cohen and those around him acted as if they were unaware they were being filmed. (There is one memorable moment, however, where Cohen is talking to a very pretty women visiting backstage and he turns to face the camera and comment on how hard it is to chat someone while being filmed.) As a result the footage taken offstage captures life on tour — backstage before and after a show, in transit, interviews with the press, and the interaction between the band members — far better than I’ve ever seen it depicted.

While all of this is interesting, what really makes Bird On A Wire a treasure is what we see of Cohen himself. The expression “wearing your heart on your sleeve” might have been coined for him at this stage in his life as he can’t hide how he’s feeling from anybody, including his audience at times. However, at the same time he exudes a sense of power that allows him to stand up in front of his audience and almost reprimand them like a parent would a misguided child and they actually listen to him.

Like all artists he’s plagued by the desire for his work to be perfect, and if it can’t be it shouldn’t be seen. At one point he stops his show in Jerusalem because he’s not happy with the quality of his performance and takes the band offstage, uncertain as to whether or not he’ll continue with the show. It’s not about pride, or if it is, it’s the right kind, because he refuses to cheat the audience by giving them anything less than what he considers his best. He eventually does go back on, and the audience doesn’t want him to leave. Eventually he has to come back onstage after multiple encores to tell the audience that he and all his band are back stage crying right now and couldn’t possibly do another song.

While there are none of the special features we’ve all come to expect from modern DVD packages included on the disc, there are some lovely surprises in the packaging. Aside from a nice sized booklet with each page containing collages of pictures, quotes, and clips from newspaper articles about Cohen, a replica of the poster for the film and what looks to be a postcard sized replica of promotional artwork of Cohen from the 1970s are also included. Naturally the image quality and the sound reproduction are limited by the condition the film was found in and the technology used to shoot it in the first place. However, all things considered, and this is a sign of a remarkable restoration job, they are probably better quality than anybody had any right to hope.

Bird On A Wire by Tony Palmer should be compulsory viewing for anyone wishing to make a documentary about a concert tour. Its combination of impeccably filmed concert footage and fly on the wall off stage reporting makes it probably the best movie of its type that I’ve ever seen. It succeeds in presenting an intimate portrait of one pop music’s more enigmatic and charismatic figures. This is Leonard Cohen as you may never have seen him before and definitely won’t ever again.

According to Amazon’s website, this DVD can’t be purchased or played on demand due to licensing agreements (in spite of the fact that they have a page for it), but interested readers can purchase a copy from DVDPlanet.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.