Lost and Found: “Bird on A Wire,” directed by Tony Palmer

In 1972 Leonard Cohen was irresistible. Across Europe, after his concerts, women come to him backstage, hoping to take strange gain away. Some have kohl-lined, predatory eyes; you can almost hear the sound of their tongues licking their lips. Others steal quick glances, or look up with doe-eyed, come-hitherness. Their minds are a sea of desire. For his part, the poet and singer politely declines their invitations, saying he will spend the evening with the members of his band. His disengagement is respectful; the women’s disappointment is palpable.

These scenes are part of Bird on A Wire, a new “old” film by British filmmaker Tony Palmer. The film is a phoenix, having been resurrected from the ash of its 30-year-long disappearance. The story of how it came to be found is itself the stuff of legend. Palmer was a reputable director who had already made award-winning films about a number of musicians and performers. When he was asked to document Cohen’s 1972 European tour, he had a single stipulation, as did the singer. Cohen wanted his political poetry included in the documentary as a way of reflecting the complexity of his art. He was being characterized as a poet/singer of sensual love songs, and his serious writing was being ignored. Palmer wanted complete access to what went on during the tour. Each accepted the other’s condition, and the film was on.

During the first of many media interviews in the film, Cohen is asked, “What is success?” In the context of the exhausting and troubling tour on which he and his band are about to embark, his answer is prophetic. “Success,” he says, “is survival.” If any tour was designed to test a musician’s capacity for survival, this was the one: 20 cities from Dublin to Jerusalem in 34 days. Before it was over, three-quarters of the concerts would be compromised by an inadequate sound system; there would be a riot, as well as what Cohen himself would describe as some “disgraceful” lapses in behaviour. “It was a roller-coaster,” Palmer remembers, and his film is a rich and unblinkered document of the ride. He modestly calls it “an impression of what happened on that tour.”

The connection between survival and success is equally germane to the film. When Palmer showed Cohen the edit (which had already been purchased for broadcast by the BBC), Leonard found it “confrontational.” Palmer then did something he had never done before and would never do again: he gave the material to Cohen and said, “See what you can do.” Two years and $300,000 later, Cohen brought back a film that premiered at the Rainbow Theatre in London on July 5, 1974, and then disappeared for three decades. It was discovered by accident in a Hollywood warehouse. More accurately, 296 cans of film that had to be hammered and chiselled open were discovered. Palmer took 3000 of the off-cut fragments from those cans, which had to be cleaned and digitally restored, and reassembled the film. The original took two months to shoot; the reassembly took half a year.

So what exactly is the nature of the film that Tony Palmer resurrected? The answer is simple enough: Bird on A Wire is the most revealingly watchable film about a musician on the road since Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home from 2005, which highlights the abusive tour Bob Dylan and The Hawks took in 1966. The scope and duration of Palmer’s film is less ambitious than Scorsese’s, and the implications of the tour for Cohen were less drastic than for Dylan, but the films are documents of a similar kind. Both show the demands and pressures applied to musicians who embark on extensive tours, and both end up being revelations about the character of their respective lead performers.

It’s worth repeating that Cohen is irresistible. There are moments when he is aware of the camera and he plays to it. In one scene, he says to a young woman who is inviting him to join her for the evening that, “it’s hard to come on to a girl with a camera around,” but as soon as she leaves he turns back to the camera and asks, “Did you get all that?” After a concert in Frankfurt he laments to his director, “God help us, I’ve disgraced myself, Tony.”

More often than not, though, he seems to forget he is being filmed, even in the most difficult circumstances. The biggest problem he and his excellent band face (his backup singers are Jennifer Warnes and Donna Washburn; he has Ron Cornelius on guitar and Bob Johnston on organ) is a sound system that continues to break down, providing enough feedback to give headaches around the room. At one post mortem following a particularly bad concert, Cohen, who is near tears of frustration, says, “I’m not a difficult man to deal with, but this is the 15th concert with no sound. There’s no music up there. It’s all in the dark.” Watching Cohen come out of the Dark Night of the Soulful Singer in which he finds himself, both because of failed technology and his own precarious relationship to the act of performance, is one of the distinct pleasures that Bird on a Wire provides.

Palmer structures the film in a way that in turn ignores the chronology of the tour, but that gives him a frame for his story beyond simply moving from one city to another. You don’t always know where you are; an airport sign might indicate Germany, or Cohen’s introduction of a song in French locates him in Paris, but for the most part Bird on a Wire is a psychological and emotional journey and not a travelogue. The film opens with a four-minute-long sequence in Tel Aviv (which was actually the penultimate city on the tour) where the security men lose control of themselves in trying to manage a crowd that Cohen has encouraged to move closer to the stage. What develops is a riot and the concert ends abruptly, amidst shots of chaos and physical upheaval. Cohen is stunned. Backstage he says to no one in particular, “They were really nasty, those people.” The riot is a clever place to begin because it sets in motion the need to overcome the bitter experience of what we have just seen. The first song we hear is Avalanche–“I stepped into an avalanche and it covered up my soul”–the lyrics of which describe the riot’s effect on Cohen. He refers to himself as “a broken-down nightingale,” and while the comment is intended as an ironic reflection on the duress of the tour and the nature of his own voice, it ends up being an accurate description of where he found himself after 33 days on the road.

Significantly, the film ends in Jerusalem with what was the final concert. It is a triumph. Earlier in the film, Cohen tells an interviewer that you can lose contact with the emotion of a song when you perform it repeatedly. In his inimitable phrasing, he says, “Sometimes you can live in the song, and sometimes it is inhospitable and it won’t admit you and you’re left banging at the door.” But in the Jerusalem concert his performance of So Long, Marianne is overwhelming. The backstage reaction of everyone involved–the band, the tour manager, the producer–is immediate and emotional. When they’re not crying, everyone sits in wordless silence. “It’s like a morgue in here,” Cohen says, and someone responds, “That was the most beautiful audience I’ve ever seen.” No one watching the film would disagree.

Bird on a Wire, then, is about redemption, about climbing free from the avalanche of despair that was a large part of the experience of the tour. Cohen tells a West Berlin audience that Passover “is a festival of freedom, and I’m trying to break free myself.” It is a hard-won gain, but he achieves that freedom in Jerusalem, in front of an audience that stayed in their seats when he couldn’t perform, and waited for him to be strong enough to return to the stage. His tour producer comes backstage where Cohen has undergone a meltdown and tells him that a pair of kids in the audience heard him say the concert was going to be cancelled and their money would be refunded. “They said, ‘No. Just let Leonard stand there. We know the words to every song. We’ll sing to him.’”
Throughout the film, Cohen has tried to explain the necessary connection he needs to have with his audience. “Whether it’s written on a page or sung as a song, if you are in touch with that thing that moves a song from lip to lip, you never command it, it’s just on you. I’m not interested in going from city to city to gather the applause of the people. It’s only nourishing if I can do something for them.” Much of his fragility and the vulnerability that accompanies him on stage has been caused by his feeling that, in not giving back commensurately, he has been cheating his audience.

What happens in Jerusalem, “the city of peace” as Cohen says to a member of the band, is that the audience redeems him. The lines from the beautiful version of Chelsea Hotel he sings in the film–“And that was called love / for the workers in song / and still is / for the few of us left.”–are a motto and an epigram for his inexhaustible presence and the knowledge he gains on the tour. In this inspiring and candid film, Cohen demonstrates for us how hard it is to survive as a worker in song. By the time the tour and the film is over, he has made it profoundly clear why he is one of the survivors. His words and songs move from his lips to our ears.

The Canadian Premiere of *Bird on A Wire was held in Eckhardt-Gramatté Hall at the University of Winnipeg on October 5, 2010, with the director in attendance. The 106-minute-long film, which includes 17 songs, is available on DVD.*

Volume 29, Number 4: Raymond Pettibon

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #116, published December 2010.

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