Classic Documentary: Leonard Cohen Bird On The Wire (Documentary, 1974)
On March 18th 1972, Leonard Cohen began a 20-city European tour, beginning in Dublin and ending in Jerusalem on April 21st. Other cities included London at the Royal Albert Hall, Paris, Stockholm, Vienna, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Berlin and Tel Aviv. This film is an impression of what happened during that tour.
Bird on a Wire is a great documentary of Leonard Cohen in his prime. Tony Palmer was given complete and intimate access to Cohen, filming him on stage, backstage, on the bus and in hotel rooms. The band is incredible. There are songs where Jennifer Warnes and Donna Washburn stand behind Cohen and sing over his shoulder, sharing one microphone. Most of the concert footage is very close on Cohen’s face, giving the movie a strangely intimate feel.
The movie begins a couple of days before the Tel Aviv concert. This is not just a concert film. The live performances are interspersed with insightful interviews in which Cohen talks about a range of topics: “I don’t have a good voice, everybody knows that” and the difficulties of performing personal songs night after night on stage. Cohen has always been candid but it doesn’t get more personal than this.
The world premiere of this feature film by Tony Palmer was at the Rainbow Theater on July 5, 1974, in London. The original version cost over 120.000 USD to produce, but Cohen was not satisfied. He spent six months in England editing and rearranging the film to show the deeper elements in music, the conditions that produced it, and his interaction with the audiences. It contains songs from albums as well as concerts, including those of Berlin, Vienna, Copenhagen, and Israel in March and April 1972. It is a documentary rather than an art film.
– Ira Nadel: Life in Art and Dorman & Rawlins: Prophet of the Heart
The footage from the last show in Jerusalem is amazing. Halfway through the show, Cohen walks off stage, quoting Kabbalah and saying that he just wasn’t giving a good concert.
A stoned(he seems so) Cohen jokes about being “bombed in Jerusalem” and after smoking some ( a lot of) cigarettes, he goes back on stage to deliver a legendary encore that included Famous Blue Raincoat.
The film, thought to be lost, was re-discovered by Tony Palmer in 2009 (actually, Bird On A Wire footage was found in 290 rusting film cans in a warehouse in Hollywood. Frank Zappa’s manager, who knew Palmer from his work on 200 Motels, sent him the film) he restored/re-cut the film to be close to the original from 1974. Cohen had done an extensive re-cut in 1974 after being dissatisfied with Palmer’s cut. I love what Palmer has done , Bird on a Wire is simply one of the most beautiful music documentaries I have ever seen.
It has been a joy — although an exceedingly expensive one — to slowly but surely restore the original film. My admiration for Leonard’s music and the group of highly skilled musicians who accompanied him on that European tour has again been rekindled. Above all, my love for the man: a good man and a great songwriter.
– Tony Palmer