Leonard Cohen‘s career was on the verge of complete disaster in late 1971. Songs of Love and Hate, his most recent record, peaked at #145 on the American charts – this despite containing future classics like “Famous Blue Raincoat” and “Joan of Arc.” CBS was ready to cut their losses and drop him from the label. A tour would give him the chance to regain some momentum, though Cohen hated performing live; he only reluctantly agreed to a one-month run in Europe because Songs of Love and Hate found a much bigger audience there than in the States. “He endlessly said that he didn’t want to tour,” says filmmaker Tony Palmer. “It had nothing do with him, he said. He was a poet, first and foremost.”
The rock documentary was still in its infancy, but Palmer had chronicled Cream’s farewell show at the Royal Albert Hall three years earlier. He was also a huge Cohen fan, and showed up to a meeting at the office of the musician’s manager, Marty Machat, clutching a copy of the Canadian icon’s poetry book The Energy of Slaves. He didn’t realize he had been summoned to create a tour documentary – what would become Bird on a Wire, a legendary lost film that would exist only in bootleg form until 2010, when it was painstakingly pieced together from raw footage. Nearly 40 years later, Palmer’s chronicle of what would become one of Cohen’s most legendary run of shows is finally getting an audience, starting with a run this month at New York’s Film Forum.
At the time, Machat was merely happy to meet one of his heroes and maybe get an autograph. “Marty didn’t want Leonard to know that CBS wanted to drop him,” says Palmer. “So he asked Leonard to leave the room, which I felt was bizarre. Then he asked if I would shoot a documentary about the European tour. He had a client about to be dropped from his label that didn’t want to tour, which is commercial suicide. This film was his last throw of the dice.”
Cohen was no more excited about the prospect of being trailed by a film crew throughout Europe than he was about touring in the first place, but Palmer quickly won him over. “I was holding the [poetry book] quite ostentatiously,” the director recalls, “when he said, ‘Oh, so you know I’m a poet?’ I said, ‘Yes, that’s actually how I first came across you before I saw you play the Isle of Wight [in 1970]. It was only later I realized you sang songs.’ That really broke the ice.” Before long, they were negotiating how a film might go. “He said to me, ‘I don’t want a film which portrays me as a writer of happy, little, sentimental love songs about Suzanne and Marianne,'” says Palmer. “‘My songs have quite a political, with a small p, edge. That’s what I want to be sure emerges in the film.'” The documentarian agreed, and Cohen asked if he had terms of his own. ” I said, ‘Yes, don’t ever, ever close the door on me. That would be intolerable,'” says Palmer. “He said, ‘Fine, I agree to that.’ That was that.”
The tour kicked off March 18th, 1972 at National Stadium in Dublin, Ireland. Palmer was rolling from the get-go with a four-man crew that included a camera operator, a sound man and someone tasked with moving around the heavy equipment. He handled the lights himself. Cohen also had a relatively small traveling contingent that included Machat, a skeleton road crew and a band that included backup singers Jennifer Warnes and Donna Washburn, guitarist Ron Cornelius, bassist Peter Marshall and organist Bob Johnston, a CBS producer best known for his work with Bob Dylan. “I once went on tour with Led Zeppelin and they had a mountain of people helping them,” says Palmer. “But Leonard basically had two boys and a dog doing everything. Because he didn’t have a record contract, there were no record executives or publicists anywhere. We never saw a single soul except for Leonard, his band and the road crew.”
Cohen honored his word by granting Palmer complete access to the tour, onstage and off. Stunning footage was captured of the singer personally refunding belligerent fans with money from his own pocket when a show was marred by sound problems. Palmer also filmed Cohen trying to pick up a beautiful young fan backstage (“it’s hard to come onto a girl in front of a camera”), as well as the musician taking nude laps in a swimming pool, reading his poetry in a bathtub, berating aggressive security guards in the midst of a fan riot during a Tel Aviv gig and sobbing after the final show in Jerusalem. “Part of our unspoken trust was that I’d never ask him to do things,” says Palmer. “He wrote the film as he went along. When he’s crying at the end … the camera was no more than three feet away from him. He completely ignored [it]. I was amazed we got what we got.”
Before the tour began, the two made a deal that only every every fifth concert would be filmed. Cohen said he’d be doing pretty much the same set every night, and Palmer didn’t want to waste film. “As he put it, ‘Four to remember the songs and the fifth one we’ll film,'” the director says. “I think we filmed maybe five concerts altogether. But with Leonard, you never took everything quite at its face. Yes, he did sing ‘Suzanne,’ for example, every single night, but with different words in a different key at a different tempo each time. The little band he had were so good that wherever Leonard went, they followed. They couldn’t be thrown off course.”
After the tour wrapped with a tear-filled set at Jerusalem’s Yad Eliahu Sports Palace on April 21st, 1972, Palmer went home and spent a month editing the roughly 40 hours of raw footage into a two-hour documentary entitled Bird on a Wire. Much like D.A. Pennebaker’s classic 1967 Bob Dylan documentary Don’t Look Back, he went with a cinéma vérité approach. There’s no narration, interviews and only bare details about Cohen’s past.
Palmer presented Cohen with the finished cut once it was done. “I felt obligated to do that,” he says. “The truth was he didn’t like it or dislike it. I think he was very surprised by the intimacy of it. The word he kept using was he was ‘confrontational,’ which I never understood. He was also worried it started with the [Tel Aviv] riot. He said, ‘Why did you do that?’ I said, ‘Well, because what you can see is the way you deal with even extraordinary circumstances.'”
In a decision he grew to regret, Palmer handed Cohen the raw footage and gave him the chance to put together his own edit. “He got his own editing crew,” says Palmer. “After about two years he’d spent a quarter of a million dollars and came up with Version Two – which, everyone has told me, he absolute hated. Something had gone wrong. He wouldn’t promote it. It had a one-night screening in London and that was it … because he didn’t like it.”
Decades with passed with nobody but the most devoted Cohen aficionados seeing Bird on a Wire via shoddy bootlegs. In another move Palmer grew to regret, he failed to create a copy of the original film for himself when he passed it along to Cohen. By 2009, the documentarian had completely given up on ever getting his hands on it when he got a hushed phone call from Frank Zappa’s former manager Herb Cohen. They had worked together on the 1971 Zappa movie 200 Motels and Cohen was digging through a Hollywood warehouse for the raw footage when he came across dozens of boxes labelled “Bird on a Wire.” “He said they couldn’t be the  Goldie Hawn film because they’re in terrible condition,” says Palmer. “I said, ‘Go back in there, bribe whoever you need to bribe and get it out of there, quick, and send them to London.'”
Marty Machat passed away in 1988, but his son Steve, via means Palmer describes as “shenanigans so tortuous they read like a B-movie plot,” managed to get the footage back into the hands of the director. Eventually, all 296 film canisters wound up in Palmer’s home. They were so rusted he had to use a hammer and chisel to get them open. Much to his chagrin, none of them contained the original negative. “I was really depressed about that,” he says. ” A couple of weeks later I was moving the boxes to put them in some kind of order. I kicked one box open accidentally and out came my draft of the mixed soundtrack.”
With the audio from the movie and most of the raw footage, Palmer was able to painstakingly restore the film to its original form. After 37 years of sub-optimal storage, some of the film was so delicate it nearly fell to bits when touched. But he was still able to put it into a viewing machine and match the audio with appropriate parts. It was a six month process that required piecing the film together from 3,000 fragments. He estimates he was able to get it 90% back to the original cut, and he filled in the missing parts with other footage. “For example, the version of ‘Suzanne’ we have now comes from three different concerts,” he says. “They were done in different tempos, different keys and even different lyrics. But with the wonders of today’s digital technology, we made it look like one performance.”
Once it was done, he sent it to Cohen. “I didn’t want to offend him,” says Palmer. “I got the message back saying, ‘I’m very glad the problem has been resolved.’ Obviously it weighted heavily on his mind all these years. He knew he’d messed up his own movie.”
It finally hit DVD and select theaters in 2010, with demand for screenings picking up dramatically after Cohen’s death in November. It comes to New York’s Film Forum for a two-week run that began on January 18th and runs through January 31st.
It may have taken four decades and more work than he could have ever imagined, but Palmer is thrilled his film is finally getting an audience. “It’s not for me to say how good it is,” he says. ” But we’ve had screenings all over the world in the past three years, especially since he died. People are very, very moved. People cry at the end. It’s astonishing, but they do.”