Friday, September 22, 2017

Leonard Cohen: Live in London (2009)

USA, 157 minutes, documentary
Director: Edward Sanders

Concert films are a breed of documentary unto themselves and the fact is I just don't look at that many. Maybe I've seen enough live shows that I know a movie of one is always a completely different experience. Or maybe I've seen enough bad shows that I forget (again) the magic of the good ones, which concert films can sometimes capture (rationally you would already assume it's a good show if it's getting the film treatment). The concert movies I like—Stop Making Sense, say—are often structured and filmic and not very much like seeing a concert. If they're rambling like a concert can be—The Last Waltz, say (understanding I'm likely in a minority in my indifference to that movie)—they're often even duller than concerts can be. At least in the movies we're spared the tedium of teardowns and setups. But paradoxically teardowns and setups count among the most common elements of the concert experience. Which only underlines how something essential about the actual physical presence is always missing from movie versions.

In any event, Leonard Cohen: Live in London is not cinematic, at all—the director is no one particularly in the movie business, and while the credits emphasize Roscoe Beck's role as musical director there is not a cinematographer credit on Repeat: No cinematographer credit. Instead, "camera" is folded in with "electrical department." This product is also, while I'm on the caveats, associated with a CD release. It had no theatrical release of its own. So technically it's not a movie, it's a video, which only makes sense on ridiculous marketing levels. I would love to see it on a big screen. What's most remarkable about this Leonard Cohen performance from the summer of 2008 in London is how generous and satisfying it is. Cohen is the logical place to put the credit.

Well, check that. Cohen has to share some of it with the aforementioned Roscoe Beck, who soulfully plucks at upright and electric basses in the concert. If he's responsible for assembling this band and had any hand in these arrangements, then he did a lot. Live in London may not be very cinematic but it is very musical, and that is the vital point here. When the music is this good—for more than two and a half hours! (at my computer, I might mention)—who needs a cinematographer credit? Who needs a name director?

Yes, of course I'm feeling sentimental about Leonard Cohen since his death last November. But I happened to see this film last year actually before his death, making my slow, slow rounds of catch-up, and even then added it immediately to my list of movies I want to write about. Part of this response is more coming to terms with how substantial Cohen's catalog is. Somehow it took me ages to shake off my sense of him as a phenomenon of the late '60s and early '70s, like the Velvet Underground. In fact, the largest gap in Cohen's album releases is from 1992 (The Future) to 2001 (Ten New Songs), both of which maintained a standard that never did dip much. Indeed, much of the power of this concert comes from how it serves as a retrospective on his career, from "Suzanne" and "Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye" at the beginning to "In My Secret Life" and "Boogie Street" from 2001, collaborations with Sharon Robinson, and touching on virtually all points in between.

The set list is seamless and monolithic, hitting high points but also roaming the crannies and deep tracks. I didn't always recognize songs by title, and found myself taking down some of the memorable lines as they flashed by: When they said respect, I wondered what they meant. Everybody knows the boat is leaking. Who shall I say is calling? Ring the bells that still can ring. Suzanne takes you down. Where is my gypsy wife tonight? I'm wanted at the traffic jam, they're saving me a seat. When you're not feeling holy your loneliness tells you you've sinned. It's closing time. Democracy is coming to the USA. First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin.

The band, with individuals frequently credited by name by Cohen throughout the show, are professionals who play beautifully. There is nothing ragged about this—by sound, to some, it might even seem to slip into easy listening adult contemporary precincts. But that's a perfect setting for Cohen's acerbic, knowing, vaguely mocking manner. His words are poetry, it says so on his resume, and often they insist on being taken that way. One song here, "Recitation" ("A thousand kisses deep"), you might as well call a reading, with light keyboard accompaniment.

Believe it or not, that works too. But my main attractions to Leonard Cohen are more musical than literary. Everyone points out how gently personable he is in the talk between songs here, charming and able to crack a few good jokes, so I will mention it too. But the main point is the material and the performance. Wonderful on both counts.

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