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Watching Leonard Cohen’s “Bird On A Wire” 38 Years After It Was Supposed To Come Out

Bird on a wire,

In 1972 critically acclaimed director, Tony Palmer (200 Motels, Cream ‘Farwell’ Concert) was granted intimate access to Leonard Cohen during a 20-city tour from Dublin to Jerusalem with the task of producing a documentary. Palmer delivered his edit of Bird On A Wire, 105 min, one month later, but the edit was met with apprehension, as Cohen feared it was “too confrontational.” Based on a rough screening of Palmer’s edit, the film was sold to the BBC, but 2 years later when the BBC received the re-edited version, which was put together by an Assistant Editor who convinced Cohen he could do a better job than Palmer, the BBC shelved it, stating it was “a mess.” Palmer’s work was lost, and bootlegs of the botched version, as well as the conclusive performance in Jerusalem, have circulated for decades.

In 2009 through a string of “complex coincidences,” Frank Zappas’s manager discovered over 200 rusty film canisters labeled “Bird On A Wire” in a Hollywood warehouse. He sent them to Palmer in London, and Palmer surprisingly found his original soundtracks in amazing shape. Palmer was able to piece together a new edit nearly identical to the original. Cohen fans, rejoice, for we are left with a beautiful, complex film filled with odd scenes of violence, a series of beautiful and awkward performances, and a vibrant, earnest Cohen weathering all of it.

Subjectively, and as a devout Leonard Cohen fan, it’s simultaneously surprising and unsurprising that Cohen would deem the film as being “too confrontational,” (especially one year after the release of Songs Of Love and Hate, his 1971 LP that contains some of the darkest tracks he ever put to tape.

It’s surprising in the sense there is confrontation in Cohen’s work, and any film that could illuminate that would seem rather appropriate. For instance right before a performance of the of “The Story of Isaac,” Cohen’s poetic adaptation of the biblical tale, Cohen tells the audience, “This is a song called ‘The Story Of Isaac,’ and it’s about those who would sacrifice one generation on behalf of another.” As the band plays the viewer is met with a brief montage of brutal footage comprised of the perils of Vietnam and human devastation; civilians burning to death, the footage (not photo) of the famously documented execution of a handcuffed prisoner by General Nguyen Ngoc, bombs falling from planes, and people painfully wailing over the scorched bodies of dead children.  Cohen’s brief explanation of intent seems to support the appropriation of this footage, which forces the viewer to abandon any traditional deductions (testing one’s devotion to God), and, instead, contemplate Cohen’s work within the realm of murderous realties of modern life.

Suffice to say, the film’s underscoring of confrontation is pretty heavy, and from the podium of being unsurprised that Cohen was originally turned off by the edit, there are lots of subtle, beautiful moments that seem to get overshadowed. It’s endearing to see Cohen going from band member to band member serving up a plate of cold cuts and cheese, Cohen laughing about an awkward flirt with a gorgeous woman in front of the camera, and the band launch into group song backstage after Cohen sings few lines a Capella. Each one of these moments, arguably just as vital to the narrative as anything else, but they are easily be overshadowed by the scenes of belligerent security guards, loud-mouthed audience members in Berlin, a PA system that causes technical problems throughout the tour, and two Norwegian dudes (one comically sporting a Prince Valiant bob) who find their way backstage after a show with serious PA problems, accusing the band of intentionally cheating the audience.

This is simply a dense documentary about a magnificent artist. From seeing him govern a room with song to leaving the stage abruptly and needing an impromptu shave before returning, Cohen fans are guaranteed to enjoy the wide spectrum of emotions they will undoubtedly experience while watching Bird on A Wire.

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