"He's the man who comes down from the mountaintop with tablets of stone," says U2's guitarist, The Edge, in "Leonard Cohen I'm Your Man," a documentary on Cohen, one of the greatest living songwriters, that is screening at this year's Sundance Film Festival.
Comments on Cohen's many biblical references in his songs and his almost mystical authority are sprinkled through out the film, which is slated for a May theatrical release from Lionsgate, even as the many interviewees also point out that Cohen can also be droll and erotic in his work.
The film's director, Australian-born and L.A.-based Lian Lunson, expanded upon The Edge's comments in a telephone interview:
"I think with great writers like Leonard Cohen, the gift they have has so much weight behind it, that even if the lyric isn't religious, it takes on a religious aspect because of the great amount of contemplation that has gone into it."
The film interweaves interviews with various subjects with a wry, introspective 71-year-old Cohen -- his face creased and hair gray but both his mind and his wardrobe sharp. Interspersed, too, are performances at the "Came So Far for Beauty" concert tribute to Cohen at the Sydney Opera House.
At that show, produced by American Hal Willner (who also produced UCLA Live's Randy Newman tribute), such musicians as the McGarrigle Sisters, Rufus Wainwright, Beth Orton, Nick Cave, Linda Thompson and Antony (of Antony & the Johnsons) perform versions of songs from throughout Cohen's career. Eventually, late in the film, Cohen sings -- in his gravely rumble of a voice -- "Tower of Song," in a surprising special performance staged just for the film by Lunson, a longtime music video director.
As Cohen and others recall, his youthful influences included the Jewish liturgy he heard in synagogue. Cohen was born in 1934 in Montreal to an influential English-speaking family. His father was a clothing manufacturer, his paternal grandfather helped lead numerous Jewish civic and religious institutions and his maternal grandfather was a rabbi and Talmudic scholar.
Cohen became first an accomplished poet and then, starting with 1967's "Songs of Leonard Cohen" (which contained the oft-recorded "Suzanne") a singer-songwriter. According to Ira Nader's Cohen biography, "Various Positions," Cohen's Judaism has influenced his songs greatly -- "Who By Fire" is based on the melody of a Yom Kippur prayer, "Mi Bamayim, Mi Ba Esh," and "If It Be Your Will" is derived from a "Kol Nidre" phrase.
Cohen talks movingly in the film about how his father's death -- when he was just 9 -- galvanized in him a compassionate but unsentimentally mature view about the limitations of life on earth.
"It was in the realm of things that couldn't be disputed or even judged," he tells Lunson.
And he explains he's been searching for other such things to give his life structure and discipline -- truth -- ever since. He describes himself as drawn to "the military and the monastery."
While remaining Jewish, he has pursued an interest in Zen Buddhism for some 30 years at the Mt. Baldy Zen Center with a Japanese master, Joshu Sasaki Roshi.
"He was someone who deeply didn't care about who I was, and the less I cared about who I was the better I felt," Cohen tells Lunson.
Speaking quietly but unguardedly, Cohen appears amused when discussing his lifelong dislike for blue jeans, his following among young "punksters" and his regrets about once revealing that "Chelsea Hotel" was written about a sexual encounter with Janis Joplin. "She wouldn't have minded, but my mother would have minded," he says of his indiscretion.
"Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man" was produced by Mel Gibson's Icon Productions, which arranged distribution with Lionsgate. Lunson and Gibson are longtime friends, and she helped him put together the album, "Songs Inspired by 'The Passion of the Christ,'" which included Cohen's "By the Rivers Dark."
"I took the idea of the film to Mel because he's a huge Leonard Cohen fan, always has been, and he said, 'Let me put it out there and see,'" Lunson said. "He loves Leonard Cohen."