Donald Brittain

film 4 of 6

Ladies and Gentlemen… Mr. Leonard Cohen

Film Review by Dean Duncan May 26, 2015

When this was released, the musical career for which Cohen is best bet known had not even begun. This being the case, this record is likely to come as something of a revelation. I guess it’s a bit like learning that, in addition to being your favourite political activist, Noam Chomsky, is also one of the world’s premiere structural linguists. In other words, pre-music, Cohen seems about fully formed. The things that some people accomplish!

Is this indelicate? He’s kind of a schlub to look at. But what charisma! What genius, actually. His opening monologue is so smooth, so effortless, so self-effacing, so superb. In terms of documentary history and the complicated question of portraying celebrity, Ladies and Gentlemen… bears profitable comparison to Wolf Koenig and Roman Kroitor’s pioneering up-close-and-personal documentary Lonely Boy (1962). The difference is that this time, with this film, the celebrity subject is in on the joke. That may not be fair to Paul Anka, the subject of the earlier film, who after all was just a kid at the time. But whereas that was a stepped-back, clear-eyed analysis of the star-making machinery, this time the subject looks suspiciously like he’s calling a number of the shots.

This might bring us to the place of the filmmakers. We sort of find director Donald Brittain on the margins here, maybe not quite in his comfort zone. That may be a function of a filmmaker still trying to find himself. It may very well be an index of his modesty, or willingness to cede some control to Cohen. It’s certainly part of the fact that he chose to ply his trade and develop his gift at a subsidized public film institution. That partly means that you take on work, and you do it. That’s much more common, almost certainly more important than auteurist comfort zones.