THE NEWS OF Leonard Cohen’s death came like a cruel punchline, karma’s final dig following the horrors of America’s 2016 election. Despite the timing, Cohen was never a generational spokesperson in the way his career-long comparisons to Bob Dylan would suggest. Cohen’s songs describe interior worlds and the nebulous space between lovers. He was less a pop star than the patron saint of anyone attempting to get laid through the means of poetry and candlelight. When his methods of private seduction took him into the public eye, there was friction.
This weekend, the Hollywood Theatre and Mississippi Records are presenting “an emergency healing showing” of Bird on a Wire, the recently restored documentary of Cohen’s 1972 concert tour of Europe and Israel. (All ticket proceeds will go to Planned Parenthood and the ACLU.) By the time of Cohen’s late-career resurgence, he had fully reconciled with his role as a cigarette-voiced Casanova, but in Bird, he’s torn: An insecure Cohen tells one audience, “I wrote these songs to myself—and to women—several years ago, and it is a curious thing to be trapped in that original effort, because here I wanted to tell one person one thing, and now I am in a situation where I must repeat them like some parrot chained to his stand night after night.”
And yet Bird shows an uncomfortable Cohen surrounded by well-wishers and fawning fans; we see him turn down post-show invitations from conspicuously beautiful women. The film reaches a crescendo at the tour’s finale in Jerusalem, when Cohen has a controlled breakdown—he leaves the stage mid-show and petulantly refuses to go back, claiming his performance isn’t good enough. After reportedly dropping a hit of acid, he returns to the crowd, singing “So Long, Marianne” through tears. The neuroses that fueled Cohen’s art made him a figure of adulation, and Bird on a Wire documents a fascinating intersection in his career, when his suavity extended no further than his songs.