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The Best of Leonard Cohen in the Movies

Yesterday marked the 80th birthday of Leonard Cohen (AKA the second greatest living songwriter in the English language). Since I have been in the habit of composing an annual Bob Dylan birthday post for the past four years, I thought I’d commemorate this occasion by listing my favorite instances of Cohen’s music in the movies. Enjoy.

“The Stranger Song,” “Sisters of Mercy” and “Winter Lady” in Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971)

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Robert Altman’s anti-capitalist/anti-western masterpiece stars Warren Beatty and Julie Christie — both de-glammed to the point of being almost unrecognizable — as an odd couple who attempt an ill-fated get rich quick scheme of establishing a brothel in the middle of nowhere. The film is essentially a mood piece about the central location, a fledgling mining town named “Presbyterian Church,” rendered by Altman and D.P. Vilmos Zsigmond as a brown, hazy, membranous world of earthy/murky sights and sounds. The glue holding everything together is a suite of Leonard Cohen’s finest songs, all taken from his first album, each of which is associated with a particular character or group of characters: “The Stranger Song” is the theme of Beatty’s McCabe, “Winter Lady” is the theme of Christie’s Mrs. Miller, and “Sisters of Mercy” is associated with the prostitutes. The lyrics of the songs are so fitting, in fact, that it’s almost difficult to believe that they weren’t written expressly for this film, which feels in more ways than one like a precursor to Altman’s cult-classic musical Popeye. For setting tone, there is nothing quite like the opening credits here — with Beatty entering town on horseback while the titles slowly drift across the screen from right to left and Cohen’s monotone baritone intones, “It’s true that all the men you knew were dealers who said they were through with dealing every time you gave them shelter . . .”

“Chelsea Hotel #2” in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980)

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Rainer Werner Fassbinder was obsessed with Leonard Cohen. The invaluable Leonard Cohen Files website shows that the great German director featured the Canadian songwriter’s work in no less than six of his movies. I’ll pick the use of “Chelsea Hotel #2” in the final episode of Berlin Alexanderplatz as my favorite simply because that epic miniseries is my favorite of all Fassbinder’s achievements. The song’s presence is, of course, anachronistic because Fassbinder’s adaptation of Alfred Doblin’s novel takes place entirely in the pre-Nazi Weimar era. Nonetheless, Fassbinder’s bugfuck “epilogue,” the final hour of what is essentially a 15-and-a-half-hour movie, is basically the director’s daring, fever-dream meditation on Doblin’s plot, characters and themes (where the story’s psychosexual subtext is more explicitly spelled out — amidst the symbolic images of a boxing match, frolicking angels and nuclear explosions). As a bonus, this episode features Kraftwerk too!

“Avalanche” in Olivier Assayas’s Cold Water (1994)

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Maverick French director Olivier Assayas’s filmography can be broken fairly neatly into two categories: daring but not-always-successful genre mash-ups (e.g., Irma Vep, Boarding Gate, Demonlover, etc.) and more conventional, autobiographical character studies (e.g., Cold Water, Summer Hours, Something in the Air, etc.). One of the things that binds all of these disparate films together is Assayas’s always-deft use of pop music (especially from his own formative years of the 60s and early 70s). My favorite Assayas film is 1994’s Cold Water, an unsentimental re-imagining of the director’s own troubled teenaged years centering on his alter-ego “Gilles” (who would return in 2012’s Something in the Air) and his relationship with his girlfriend Christine. The highlight of Cold Water is a climactic party scene in which the protagonists smoke hash and dance around a bonfire to a stellar playlist of tunes including Credence Clearwater Revival’s “Around the Bend,” Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” and “Avalanche,” the haunting track that kicks off Leonard Cohen’s great Songs of Love and Hate album.

“I’m Your Man” in Steve James’s Life Itself (2014)

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Although I wasn’t as enamored of Steve James’s adaptation of Roger Ebert’s memoir as a lot of critics, I can find no fault with his almost unbearably poignant use of “I’m Your Man,” the title track of Cohen’s remarkable 1988 comeback album. Ebert explains that the song literally saved his life when he and his wife Chaz lingered for a while in his hospital room to listen to it instead of leaving the hospital following jaw surgery. A blood vessel burst under Ebert’s chin mid-song and, because the Eberts were still in close proximity to doctors (and not, say, in a cab on the way home), the doctors were able to save his life. The fact that the song plays during a scene where Roger and Chaz tell the story allows the lyrics to have a parallel function as a testament to their love for each other: “If you want a boxer,” Cohen sings, “I’ll step into the ring for you / And if you want a doctor, I’ll examine every inch of you / If you want a driver, climb inside / Or if you want to take me for a ride / You know you can / I’m your man.”

“Take This Waltz” in Jean-Luc Godard’s Letter in Motion to Gilles Jacob and Thierry Fremaux (2014)

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Like Fassbinder, Jean-Luc Godard has used the music of Leonard Cohen in multiple projects: the short Puissance de la parole, the mammoth video series Histoire(s) du Cinema and his most recent project Letter in Motion to Gilles Jacob and Thierry Fremaux, the “video letter” he sent to the Cannes Film Festival to explain why he could not be present in person to present his new movie Goodbye to Language. In the manner of much recent Godard, this cryptic short film features clips from the director’s own previous work (notably King Lear, which had scandalized the festival in 1987) intercut with punning title cards and clips of Godard speaking in the present day. The nearly nine-minute film ends with Godard saying: “So, I’m going where the wind blows me, just like autumn leaves as they blow away. Last year for example, I took the tramway, which is a metaphor, the metaphor and . . . to return, to return to pay my dues from 1968 at the Havana Bar . . . and now, I believe that the possibility of explaining things is the only excuse to fight with language . . . as always, I believe it’s not possible . . . this May 21st . . . this is no longer a film but a simple waltz, my president, to find the true balance with one’s near destiny.” Immediately upon saying “a simple waltz, my president,” Cohen’s sublime “Take This Waltz” (also from the I’m Your Man album) can be heard. This is then followed by a clip of Bob Dylan singing, “How long must I listen to the lies of prejudice?” from “When He Returns.” Poetry on top of poetry on top of poetry, folks.

Leonard Cohen’s new album, Popular Problems, drops on September 23rd. You can check out the video for his superb new song “Almost Like the Blues” via YouTube below:

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About michaelgloversmith

Filmmaker, author and Film Studies instructor. View all posts by michaelgloversmith

8 responses to “The Best of Leonard Cohen in the Movies

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