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Leonard Cohen as important as Bob Dylan, says 'Bird on a Wire' director

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Filmmaker Tony Palmer has said that Leonard Cohen is as important a figure as Bob Dylan.

Palmer directed 1972 documentary film Bird on a Wire, which was shelved on completion before being discovered and reconstructed from its original rushes for its 2010 re-release.

Leonard Cohen

© Rex Features / Ilpo Musto

Leonard Cohen in 1972



"It's not every day you make a film some 38 years ago and then you suddenly manage to rescue it and piece it back together," Palmer told Digital Spy.

"People's reactions were amazing. I was absolutely gobsmacked. I really was... It actually took longer to piece the jigsaw back together again than it had done to make the original film."

He continued: "When we made it in 1972, Leonard was absolutely at the peak of his form. The great early songs. I thought he had a wonderful voice - he was always very dismissive about his voice.

"Although he's remained a fantastic performer, his voice is not what he was... this is what Leonard on film actually looked and sounded like then.

"I thought he was such an important singer. If not quite Bob Dylan, almost Bob Dylan - and just as important as Bob Dylan."


Leonard Cohen: Bird on a Wire - movie trailer

He added: "I've always thought that Leonard was an absolutely fantastic performer and a very good poet. I've always admired him and loved him, it was as simple as that.

"I was extremely relieved that we managed to piece the jigsaw back together again, but also very, very pleased that his new audience took to it as warmly as they did."

Of the access he had to Cohen during the making of the film, Palmer said: "He didn't want to tour because he felt he was a poet and somehow he was being made into a rock star, which was not him.

"What Leonard didn't know but the manager certainly did was that his record contract had been cancelled - or if not cancelled, they weren't going to renew it.

"Because there was no prospect of a record contract, there were no record executives around. Because he said he didn't want to tour any more, there were no PR people around."

Bob Dylan

© Rex Features / Rex Usa

Bob Dylan in 1965



He continued: "What now happens, I know, you get 50 record executives, 70 PR people, endless people talking about 'the image' of the person you wanted to see.

"That was luck, that there weren't all those dreadful people hanging around. Even with somebody like Leonard, I don't think I could make that kind of film now."

On whether you can present an objective 'truth' when making a documentary, Palmer said: "My attitude towards it is that I just film what's there.

"Anybody that you film is making sure their tie is straight or their hair is combed - whatever image it is that they want to portray.

Tony Palmer

© Rex Features / Denis Jones/Evening Standard

Filmmaker Tony Palmer



"As I'm my own film editor to some extent I'm cooking the books. I'm arranging the material in order to give the impression that I want to give.

"But I protect myself - if that's the right word - because as you will have seen in Bird on a Wire, there's not a single word of narration from beginning to end."

He added: "I'm certainly not going to impose my view on the material and certainly I'm never going to tell the audience what to think.

"My job is to collect the material to arrange it in as sympathetic a way as I can and let the audience make up their mind.

"I'm getting as close to what happened as I possibly can and then I'm presenting in as clear a way as I can, without imposing me upon the material."

Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen in concert



Asked about the film being shelved and the failed 1974 edit by Cohen's team, Palmer said: "Leonard looked at [the '72 film] but neither liked it nor disliked it. He thought maybe it was a bit confrontational.

"Simply because I admired him enormously and I liked him very much, personally, I said, 'Well, here's the material, see if you can polish it up a bit'. That was an incredibly stupid and naïve thing to do. I never did it again!

"I think it was a journey of experience for him to realise that after two years and a vast sum of his own money, he hadn't come up with anything that was even remotely as good as what we'd done the first time.

"That was why he threw in the sponge and the film disappeared."


'So Long, Marianne' from Leonard Cohen: Bird on a Wire

Of the effect of his film on one Canadian fan who saw the premiere in Toronto, Palmer said: "This woman came up to me and jabbed her finger at me and said, 'You've ruined my love of Leonard Cohen!'

"I said, 'Sorry, what have I done?!' She said, 'You ruined my love of Leonard Cohen!' I said, 'Madam, calm down, were you at the film last night?'

"She said, 'Yes, I then went home and I played my old recordings, and the performances are nowhere near as good as on your film!'

"They're incredibly emotional performances in the film. That's not my fault, that's what he did!"

Tony Palmer's Leonard Cohen: Bird on a Wire is out on DVD via Boulevard Entertainment on July 29.

It is released alongside the director's All You Need Is Love: The Beatles, The World of Liberace and Frank Zappa's 200 Motels

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