Movies like "Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man" come at you in sections and, more often than not, the sections arrive unevenly sliced. Director Lian Lunson attempts to mold a synthesis of biopic, symposium, concert film and mash note to one of the icons of late 20th century songwriting. The creature that results from such earnest work looks either exotic or distorted, depending on your angle of vision.
The performance pieces, drawn (with one notable exception) from a tribute concert last year at the Sydney Opera House in Australia, are at once the movie's propulsive and problematic elements. Organized by Hal Willner, master of the eclectic musical homage, the concert is, as these things go, a mixed blessing.
The artists express their affection for Cohen's music in extremes of fervent sincerity or grandiloquent self-indulgence. Both these attitudes are embodied by Rufus Wainwright, whose camping and vamping on "Everybody Knows" distracts from the song's trenchant, still-up-to-the-minute relevance, while his stirring take on "Hallelujah" scrapes the edges of solemnity.
Nick Cave's cocktail swagger on "I'm Your Man" may seem just as precious, but it does well enough to make you wish Sinatra had gotten his hands on it while he'd been able. Idiosyncrasy reaches its dubious peak with a proto-punk duet by Beth Orton and Jarvis Cocker on "Death of a Ladies' Man." Orton does much better on her own with "Sisters of Mercy" because she simply and appropriately yields the floor to Cohen's lyrics, an impulse that reaches its most riveting peak with Antony's probing, ardent version of "If It Be Your Will."
Indeed, "I'm Your Man" succeeds best when it intensifies its focus on the work and life of its main subject, seen in interviews, home movies and in a climactic performance with Bono and the Edge on "Tower of Song."
Cohen in conversation seems both amused and bemused by all the fuss being made over him through the years. His self-deprecation is charming, but it's also cagey. He'll come down from his tower to tell funny stories like he's your favorite uncle. But he knows his Eastern philosophy artfully enough to conceal as much as he discloses.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for some sex-related material