TJFF: Leonard Cohen: Bird on a Wire

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Leonard Cohen: Bird on a Wire

Directed by Tony Palmer

2010, UK, 106 mins.

Astute Leonard Cohen fans ought to have a serious objection at this point, before the review has really began – namely, that Bird on a Wire was a film released in 1972, not 2010. They are correct – Tony Palmer was given access to Cohen during his twenty city European tour in 1972 and turned the footage into a documentary. Using the same footage, Palmer has recut and reconstructed his film, and has now rereleased it as something new. Fans of the original 1972 film ought to be happy – Palmer’s efforts have been worthwhile.

Like most tour films, Bird on a Wire consists of behind-the-scenes footage, concert footage, and interviews with the performer himself. It is not a revolutionary format, but it is an effective one – the next best thing to seeing Cohen live in concert is seeing footage of a Cohen concert. This is not to say that everything is brilliant. Actually, Palmer includes footage of some less-than-stellar Cohen concerts – it seems that they were beset by serious microphone and sound problems, at one point leading to a hilarious exchange with upset fans that sees the band taking up a collection to refund their ticket money. Palmer doesn’t inject himself into the film, but his presence affects what is happening on screen – at one point, as Cohen awkwardly attempts to deal with a groupie, he remarks that it’s hard to come onto a girl with a camera on him.

A main element of this film’s appeal is the humble and interesting nature of Cohen himself. He is much more coherent than most musicians – he speaks with some eloquence and always tries to engages with is interviewer in a thoughtful way. To be sure, Cohen expresses himself best through song, but it is a refreshing change of pace to see a musician comporting himself in a cogent and humble manner.

Music documentaries tend to appeal only to fans of the musician in question, and I suspect that Bird on a Wire is no different. That said, fans familiar with the original documentary should rest assured that this is a worthy reconstruction, and Cohen fans who have yet to see Bird on a Wire ought to put it on their list.

–       Dave Robson

Toronto Jewish Film Festival is playing from May 7th through May 15th. Tickets may be purchased online, by phone, or in person. More information is available on their website.

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