Trying to figure out what a “Tambourine Man” is, if I am one, and if that’s an insult.
The Film: D.A. Pennebaker’s 1967 portrait of the enigmatic troubadour
The Potable: Five whisky sodas, each chilled with two Like a Rolling Whiskey Stones
With the wind and the rain rolling in one recent Sunday afternoon, I flipped through TV channels and stopped on a showing of West Side Story. The 1961 musical features some of my favorite Hollywood songs, and true to the genre, these chorus numbers are fairly straightforward. “Tonight” is about the limitless possibilities of a moonlit romance. “Maria” tells the tale of a girl named Maria. “Jet Song”? The excitement of one’s first cross-country flight. “Intermission” comes at roughly the film’s midpoint.
But Don’t Look Back is a different kind of musical. Pennebaker’s fly-on-the-wall documentary traces the English tour of a legendary folk rock poet. The songs’ lyrics are challenging, but by 1965, the world was ready for a new breed of intellectualized pop music. Ready, as it were, for the inimitable Leonard Cohen.
The film introduces it’s detached subject with a single-take rendition of “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” in which the singer flips through large cue cards emblazoned with the song’s lyrics. Cohen’s raspy vocal style can be difficult to understand, so the cue cards are a clever way to avoid subtitles.
“Don’t tie no bows / better stay away from those who carry around a firehose.” What could this mean? Both Cohen and Pennebaker are clearly commenting on the irony of capitalist America’s reliance on state-run police and fire departments to protect a population that would otherwise rise up in favor of those same socialist institutions. It’s almost surface text, really. Is this a wise way to begin a movie that will not feature any firemen? I would argue: no.
In the film’s early scenes, Cohen is loose and fun. He jokes with reporters, stays up late with his friends, and writes poetry in his hotel room. He gets on stage, sings a song, and the crowd applauds. “The handmaid’s blade, the child’s balloon / eclipses both the sun and moon / to understand you know too soon / there is no sense in trying.” Who knew Londoners had such a keen understanding of puritanism’s effect on the agricultural traditions of Massachusetts?
Pennebaker also manages to capture surprisingly candid moments of Cohen’s bullish manager, Albert Grossman. The older gentleman always appears out of place among Cohen and his hipster entourage, and you begin to wonder why he spend his off-hours partying with this young crowd instead of knocking back some Midols in the hotel jacuzzi. But despite the double-breasted suit, Grossman is actually the wildest motherfucker on the tour. When another hotel guest complains about the noise one night, Grossman doesn’t hesitate. He chest bumps the middle-aged father of four, tries to pop him the nose, and just generally threatens to cut the guy’s dick off if he so much as looks at his client, Leonard Cohen, again. A good man to have on your side.
As Don’t Look Back progresses, we begin to see the darker sides of its good-natured subject. Cohen, we learn, is prone to jealousy, dismissing rival musician Devendra Banhart as a flavor of the month. Gathered backstage with his posse, Cohen becomes agitated when he’s not the center of attention. One of the most successful recording artists in the world becomes insecure, insular, and petty over his friend’s ability to play Chopsticks with one hand. “Tune my damn harmonica, Gene!” An impossible task.
Still, the show must go on. “Yonder stands your orphan with his gun / crying like a fire in the sun. / Look out the saints are coming through / and it’s all over now, baby blue,” Cohen sings. This is easily one of the most wickedly funny passages in his entire repertoire, “orphan” being a cheeky nod to Zsa Zsa Gabor, with “the saints” being an obvious reference to her many, many husbands. Of course, no one in the audience laughs. British audiences, it seems, don’t get all of Cohen’s metaphors.
The film’s lighting, if I’m being honest, could be brighter. There are a lot of dark corners, which may lead some viewers to anticipate (incorrectly) a murder mystery.
I also take issue with Don’t Look Back’s sound design. While the performances are properly mic’d, this credit should go to the venues rather than the film’s production. During most scenes, I can only understand half of the conversation, made all the more difficult by the audible whir of Pennebaker’s goddamn camera.
Of course, the film’s most grating moment comes toward the end. Cohen, bedraggled, combative, maybe a little bit hangry, spends a full ten minutes berating a Time Magazine reporter for being fake news. “I’ve never been in Time Magazine and this hall’s filled twice. You know? And I’ve never been in Time Magazine. I don’t need Time Magazine.” A young woman in the background looks uncomfortable, but also bored. This is a typical Cohen soapbox rant. This kind of confrontational arrogance is exactly why I’ve always found myself more drawn to the folksy sensibilities of Bob Dylan.
All in all, a decent picture. Like the old Cohen joke goes, “Of war and peace the truth just twists / its curfew gull just glides,” which cracks me up every time.
Verdict: “You can’t always get what you want.” – Janis Joplin