Hallelujah Man

Performers pay tribute to a folk icon through his best-loved songs.

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Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man Cedar Lee Theatre
Leonard Cohen (left), takes the stage with a burlesque girl and U2's Bono.
Leonard Cohen (left), takes the stage with a burlesque girl and U2's Bono.
If you can't think of a crisis in your life that's tied to a Leonard Cohen song, then Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man, Canadian director Lian Lunson's velvety, exuberantly hagiographic film of a 2005 Sydney tribute concert to the Prince of Pain, may not be the movie for you. If you can, the experience will be weepy bliss.

Produced by Hal Willner, the concert shows off Cohen's unifying influence on an astonishingly diverse range of musicians, from Nick Cave (giving the lounge-lizard treatment to "I'm Your Man") to Antony jigging up and down in an unraveled sweater and making a gorgeous symphony out of "If It Be Your Will," a sweet duet of "Anthem" by concert organizers Julie Christensen and Perla Batalla, and a rousing rendition of "Everybody Knows" by the Wainwright family. Cohen sings "Tower of Song" at the end, flanked by U2, but his life flashes by us, intercut with the musical numbers, in grainy footage and wry commentary by the man himself.

A total babe in his salad days, if that's the right expression for a man plagued all his life with depression, at 71 Cohen looks like any one of my heavy-lidded Jewish uncles, only with better suits. (He never got into the jeans thing, even while hanging with the Beats at the Chelsea Hotel.) But notwithstanding a touching moment when he gropes for the name of a musical movement ("Punk, that's it!"), he's sharp as a tack and as ready as ever to debunk his own myths: He can't carry a tune. In his years as a monk, "I hated everyone, but acted generously." And how could he be a ladies' man, when he spent "10,000 nights alone"?

Cohen may be as obsessive a reviser of his own history as he is of his songs and poems, but his way with words is so sublime, so gently precise and musical, you'd be a churl to quibble. And he seems as genuinely humble as he is proud to be lionized in such good musical company. "The Wainwrights have brought my music to life," he says. "And I appreciate it."

Just as well, for if anyone steals his thunder in this movie it's the magnetic Rufus Wainwright, who, with his sister Martha, brings such rapture to "Hallelujah," among others, that you rediscover Cohen's songs for the continuous hymnal they are. Angelic, sexy, androgynous, and mischievously decadent, Wainwright couldn't be less like the manly, bass-voiced Cohen. But in putting his own simple yet operatic spin on Cohen's gift for suffering and exaltation, he's also keeping the faith. I don't know whether those rolled-back eyes are the result of ecstasy or Ecstasy, but if Wainwright carries on making music like this, he'll make willing bisexuals of us all.

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