Leonard Cohen’s loss will be measured in many ways in the immediate aftermath of his passing Thursday night.
A giant of music, poetry and literature, the Montreal native was an essential part of Canadian culture for more than half a century.
He was also the source of some incredible cinematic moments, both on the screen itself and echoing through soundtracks.
Starting on the home front, Don Owen and Donald Brittain immortalized Cohen in a 1965 NFB documentary Ladies and Gentlemen … Mr. Leonard Cohen (which, somehow is scheduled to play TIFF Bell Lightbox on Saturday!).
Emerging two years before D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back, a strong argument can be made for the Cohen doc as the original rockumentary. A look at Cohen, the poet, the film pre-dated Cohen’s debut album by two years, proving how far ahead of the curve the board’s mandate was to beat “Suzanne”s release by a clean two years.
Cohen’s next huge cinematic turn came courtesy of Robert Altman who, in 1971, utilized the Canadian bard’s distinctive voice to underscore his frontier Western McCabe & Mrs. Miller.
A mid-point between Altman’s MASH breakthrough and cementing his auteur status with The Long Goodbye and Nashville, Cohen’s music played a central part from the film’s opening credits. Audiences grew accustomed to “Songs by Leonard Cohen” from the opening strains of “The Stranger Song” to “Sister of Mercy” (both off Cohen’s masterful debut The Songs of Leonard Cohen).
Skipping over some tracks and dropping the needle ahead nearly two decades, Cohen’s late career renaissance came into full force with the release of 1988’s I’m Your Man.
For music fans it might be remembered as the album that gave the world “First We Take Manhattan” or “Tower of Song”. But for children of the 1990s it’s the opening strains of another of the album’s cuts that evokes a visceral cinematic memory.
The menace of Cohen’s gravel voice and the prophecy of lyrics like “everybody knows that the dice are loaded” establish a sense of danger and unpredictability that early ‘90s shock-jock fore-runner Happy Harry Hard-On (Christian Slater) needs to establish his stranglehold over an entire town in Pump Up the Volume.
It’s telling that in a film from the beginning of a decade as edgy as the 1990s, and on a soundtrack that featured the likes of Sonic Youth, Soundgarden and the Pixies that the first – and ultimately definitive – musical voice of the film was the then-56-year-old Cohen.
Bringing it all back home, however, let’s end this memorial of sorts with a 21st-Century Canadian film steeped in Cohen’s works: Sarah Polley’s 2011 sophomore feature Take This Waltz (named after another track off of I’m Your Man).
A love letter to the rival city to Cohen’s home – Toronto, of course – the domestic drama that fictionalized a fraying of Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen’s marriage owes a great deal to Cohen’s work, beyond eponymy.
Yes, the titular song underscores the film’s emotional climax, but it’s an Easter egg courtesy of Feist that proved the film’s great ode to Cohen. The Broken Social Scenester’s cover of Cohen’s ’90s hit “Closing Time” is still yet to see the light of day in terms of an official release.
This is a far cry from a comprehensive memorial. Cohen’s 50-plus years of music touched so many people on so many deep levels that a pithy recap of a few of his cinematic touchstones only scratches the surface of his impact. Even his soundtrack legacy goes well beyond this quick run-down from films like Fox and His Friends, Exotica and Natural Born Killers to the likes of Watchmen, Rosewater, Pirate Radio and Pete’s Dragon, his voice will continue its cinematic legacy for generations to come.
But good lord, what a legacy.