This past Sunday, Leonard Cohen, the poet and singer songwriter with the beautiful baritone voice sandpapered by time, “about 500 tons of whiskey, and millions of cigarettes,” turned 80. A day later, he released his thirteenth studio album (Popular Problems), 47 years after his first.
Nearly half a century since he sung about Suzanne, Cohen’s career has been beautifully long, spanning vastly different worlds, and evolving through the years without being felled by the indecipherable mumbles of his contemporary, Bob Dylan. His poetic lyrics ruminate on everything from love and passion to religion and politics, sold through the man in the suit and fedora, but extending far beyond his shadow’s reach, especially in the realms of cinema.
Where other artists enjoy surges and disappearances, their music only returned to when the passage of time makes then wildly affordable, Cohen’s presence in film has been almost constant, spanning everything from silent foreign films to bloody Hollywood blockbusters. It’s music and sentiments that might seem straightforward superficially, yet have an uncanny knack of seamlessly sliding into any scenario it faces, regardless of the format or generation.
What follows are eight of the best uses of his work in film – one for every decade of his poetic life. (And let us never speak of sex scenes inside of owl ships.)
Beware of a Holy Whore
In 1971, Rainer Werner Fassbinder released Beware of a Holy Whore, the story of a cast and a crew whose behavior disintegrates as they wait for their director to arrive – based on the filmmaker’s experiences making the German western Whity. Cohen’s music is introduced early in the film, right after a mellow declaration of love. “You can believe it,” the man says, as the first notes of the song strike and become the undercurrent of the scene, Cohen’s memories of comfort clashing with face after face of unhappiness and Fassbinder’s frantic shouting.
Cohen was a favorite amongst the men of New German Cinema, from the early work of Werner Herzog’s Fata Morgana to Wim Wender’s 2004 narrative, Land of Plenty.
McCabe and Mrs. Miller
Leonard Cohen’s music and Robert Altman’s 1971 film were destined to go together. Altman had bought Cohen’s debut, Songs of Leonard Cohen, some years earlier and loved it, wearing out the album and buying it again before forgetting about it and making the snowy western. As he’d later explain, “that music was in my head so deep, that when I shot these scenes, subconsciously I fit the scenes to the songs… like they were written for it.” Indeed, without planning to, the film and soundtrack merge seamlessly, and though Warner Brothers said he’d never get Cohen’s tunes, Altman succeeded, all because Cohen loved Altman’s recent flop, Brewster McCloud.
Pump up the Volume
After years of being the pensive voice matched with landscape and thought, Cohen’s cinematic influence had started to wane, only to be reinvigorated in the ’90s once Happy Harry Hard On bounced back and forth between Cohen’s “Everybody Knows” and Concrete Blonde’s electric cover during his pirate radio shows. Cohen was a sign of Harry’s musical range – the guy who searched beyond the mainstream for the worthy and rare, a conceit that would seem strange a few years later with the arrival of Mickey and Mallory.
Natural Born Killers
Anyone who managed to slip by outside of Cohen’s world was forced into it with the arrival of Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers. The singer songwriter’s gravelly voice introduces the film, as the two killers hit a diner and “Waiting for the Miracle” plays. The song emphasizes their discontent, and begins to morph into a thoughtful, but apt menace while Mickey and Mallory turn it into their motivation, “waiting for the miracle, there’s nothing left to do.”
1994 was quite the year for Cohen’s revival. If his work can be the background of two crazed killers, it could also be the tunes Canadian strippers dance to. Of course, his music isn’t the type to really infuse into the real world of exotic dancing, but it definitely works on-screen as Mia Kirschner’s Christina dances. The music gives an unsurprising sadness to the scenes Cohen croons over, and would become a go-to for the era’s look into strip clubs, later being used in Dancing at the Blue Iguana.
True Love and Chaos
Cohen is usually the voice behind his music in film, but in True Love and Chaos, Hugo Weaving’s Morris takes a shot with “So Long, Marianne” (one of three Cohen tunes used in the film). Weaving does the song justice, even without the gritty drawl, and it’s a nice musical prelude before his much more silent turn as Agent Smith in The Matrix.
In McCabe and Mrs. Miller, the narrative became one where Altman was subconsciously merging his western drama with the music buried in his mind. With Secretary, it’s like Cohen’s music was finally free to make the idiosyncratically impeccable connections it was meant to. “I’m Your Man” is perfect for the story of Lee and E. Edward Grey as the two work out their sexual attraction on her dinner plate, fix typos in a particularly unprofessional manner, and then link back to the early western days of horses and saddles in a way Cohen surely didn’t anticipate. With each film, his discography becomes a bulbous creature that can morph to any scenario – serious and comedic, pensive and explosive.
Take This Waltz
Not all cinema plucks through Cohen’s music for magic moments. In Take This Waltz, Polley not only uses the titular song for a scene, but as the inspiration for the narrative: “It really informed the tone and spirit … when I was writing I almost imagined it as a musical. In my head, it kind of was.” When she finally gets to the scene in question, it isn’t only a playful song that explores Margot’s new life – it’s a waltz itself, spinning around the players as they act out their desires – not on “a chair with a dead magazine” or “some hallway where love’s never been,” but close enough. A barren space that looks like a dance floor slowly fills with the remnants of their desires.
Honorable Mention: I’ve yet to see it, but a new manifestation of Cohen turned up in this year’s The Congress, and is sung by Robin Wright as her cartoon self in a bar. The Dissolve called it one of the more “haunting” scenes of the film. You can hear the song here.