Blondes, bottled and otherwise, seem to have played significant roles in Leonard Cohen's life.
Not that he's been drawn exclusively to fair-haired members of the opposite sex. As an agent of Eros, he appears to be pretty much an equal-opportunity employer. Still, blondes have served various functions over Cohen's 71 years -- as muse (Nico), romantic interest (Marianne Ihlen, Joni Mitchell, Rebecca De Mornay), manager (Kelley Lynch) and sometimes in combinations thereof. Now we can add "chronicler" to the list, in the form of Australian filmmaker Lian Lunson, whose movie, Leonard Cohen -- I'm Your Man, goes into wide release this weekend.
Whether the fortysomething Lunson has played any other role in Cohen's life, I leave to gossip columnists and others more knowledgeable about his personal affairs. Still, it's clear on the evidence of Leonard Cohen -- I'm Your Man, that director and poet-songwriter did achieve some rapport, if not intimacy.
I'm Your Man is a hybrid concert film and documentary, the first element from a tribute performance to Cohen that Lunson and her four-man camera crew filmed at the Sydney Opera House in January, 2005, the second from interviews with Cohen that Lunson later taped at his home in Los Angeles using an unobtrusive digital camera.
As with seemingly everything Cohenesque, the road to the poet's door was a circuitous one. Lunson, who'd been a TV and film actor in Australia in the 1980s, knew of Cohen's work before she met him, having read his second novel Beautiful Losers and having been particularly moved by his 1966 song Sisters of Mercy. But the seed of the idea to make a film about the man was planted by producer Hal Willner, while the project's realization was helped enormously by another Australian, Mel Gibson.
Gibson, of course, is that Mel Gibson. Willner's bona fides are a touch more obscure, although among the cultural cognoscenti he's famous for his work as a music director and producer and for the audacious tribute albums and concerts he's assembled over the years to honour, among others, Fellini's preferred soundtrack composer Nino Rota, jazz giant Thelonious Monk, folkie Tim Buckley and German songwriter Kurt Weill. It was such a tribute concert, called Came So Far for Beauty: An Evening of Songs by Leonard Cohen, that Willner mounted first in Brooklyn in 2003, then in Brighton, England a year later, that piqued Lunson's interest.
"I'd met Hal through a friend of mine, Gavin Friday, this Irish singer and artist," Lunson recalled during an interview at last year's Toronto International Film Festival. "Hal told me he was going to do this tribute for Leonard in Brighton with these great people like Nick Cave, Rufus Wainwright, Beth Orton, Jarvis Cocker." Lunson, whose previous behind-the-scenes credits included production of films on Willie Nelson, Pearl Jam, Dwight Yoakam and INXS, didn't have enough time to pull her resources together to shoot the Brighton fete. But then Willner told her the Sydney Opera House was interested in hosting essentially the same program in early 2005.
"Hearing the soundtrack of the Brighton performance, I couldn't stop playing it," she said enthusiastically. "And I knew I had to do whatever I could to get [the Sydney]concert filmed." One of the things she had to do was talk to Mel Gibson. According to Lunson, the director of The Passion of the Christ and star of the Mad Max films "is a huge Leonard Cohen fan." Indeed, in 2004, Gibson had worked with Lunson on Songs Inspired by The Passion of the Christ, a compilation CD that included Cohen's By the Rivers Dark among its 12 selections.
It was Gibson, whom Lunson describes as "a really, really interesting person, very, very complex," who arranged a meeting between Lunson and Lions Gate Films. Flushed with the success of distributing Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 documentary, Lions Gate agreed to help bankroll Lunson's Cohen vision.
Lunson said it was always her intention to include interviews with Cohen along with what she'd shot live in Australia. "I didn't want to just have this biographical sketch; I wanted to capture some of the essence of Leonard." Cohen, who'd seen Lunson's documentary on Willie Nelson and "really liked it a lot," agreed to meet her, but there was no formal discussion about filming their encounters. "Basically, it just evolved," she said. "It was like a conversation; it was us getting to know each other, very relaxed." Eventually, she told him: "Y'know, Leonard, when we meet for lunch next -- I can't go to Leonard's house without having lunch -- I'm thinking I might bring my camera. He didn't object."
Lunson's other coup in I'm Your Man is the participation of U2 with Cohen for a climactic performance of Tower of Song. A master at reducing John Guare's "six degrees of separation," Lunson first connected with the world's biggest rock band in 1988, around the time of the release of the concert film Rattle and Hum. "We met through another friend," she said, laughing. "And after we did, I proceeded to argue with Bono about film for two weeks until finally he just said to me, 'If you know so much about it, go and make your own film.' "
Bono and U2's lead guitarist David Evans (aka The Edge) "are huge Leonard Cohen fans," Lunson noted, "so when I realized I'd like Leonard to perform something in the film, as a way of tying the whole thing together, I asked U2 if they'd be willing to be his backup band." Both sets of performers were amenable, but timing became a difficulty as U2 toured for its How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb recording. Still, the band practised Tower of Song during sound checks while on the road. Eventually, it came together one afternoon in May last year when Cohen, U2, Lunson and her crew piled into a New York club. "We shot for 2½ hours. The crews were so enthusiastic. I knew what I wanted and I got it."