Leonard Cohen on Screen: 12 Best Song Uses in Movies and TV - Rolling Stone
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Leonard Cohen on Screen: 12 Best Song Uses in Movies and TV

From TV shows and Eighties teen flicks to ‘Shrek,’ the most memorable needle-drops of the songwriter’s back catalog

10 Best Leonard Cohen Soundtrack Cuts

From Eighties teen flicks to Nineties teen soaps, 'Natural Born Killers' to 'Shrek" – 12 best uses of Leonard Cohen's songs in movies and TV shows.

Photofest, Gijsbert Hanekroot/Getty, Everett Collection

Leonard Cohen's early music career didn't quite crack the mainstream the same way that peers like, say, Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell had, but it was films – and later television shows – that helped build, and continue to maintain his legacy. The smoky, deep rasp of his voice, sparse musical accompaniment and gorgeous wordplay has signified the most dramatic moments across the cinematic universe while "Hallelujah" — and its many covers — has become the Pavlov's bell of sadness, grace and grandeur for everyone from cartoon ogres to lovestruck teens. (It's also been applied to some rather questionable sequences; let us never speak of that Watchmen sex scene ever again.) Here are some of the greatest uses of Cohen's iconic songs on both the big and small screens.

‘Breaking the Waves,’ “Suzanne”

Danish filmmaker/agent provocateur Lars von Trier has always had a love of dropping a bit of music in for poetic and/or ironic effect; remember those Dogville end credits of poverty and squalor in the U.S.A., set to Bowie's "Young Americans"? The choices he made for the chapter headings of his 1996 breakthrough movie run the gamut from glam (Mott the Hoople's "All the Way to Memphis") to glum (Procol Harum's "Whiter Shade of Pale"). But it's the use of Cohen's ode to a woman "who feeds you tea and oranges/that come all the way from China" over the movie's fifth section – entitled "Doubt" – that feels most evocative of the film's moody, lovelorn tragedy. Go directly to the 2:15 mark above and watch how it plays over a gray, fog-strewn shot of a ruined house. It's a perfect melding of melancholy sound and vision.

‘Pump Up the Volume,’ “Everybody Knows”

He was just a quiet Phoenix high school loner who secretly broadcasts a pirate radio station from his parents' basement; then Christian Slater's suburban transplant adopted the mouthy, anti-authoritarian alter ego "Hard Harry" and quickly turned his community upside down. Cohen's suavely apocalyptic diatribe is the disruptive D.J.'s theme music that recurs throughout the movie, a dark signal the man on the mic sends out to jolt his complacent listeners out of their comfort zone. A second version of the song, recorded by modern rockers Concrete Blonde, plays as the introduction to Harry's final broadcast, and another second Cohen song, "If It Be Your Will," appears in the film as well.

‘McCabe and Mrs. Miller,’ “The Stranger Song”

Upon viewing Robert Altman's brilliant 1973 "anti-Western," you may wonder which came first, its script or the three Leonard Cohen songs – "The Stranger Song," "Sisters of Mercy," and "Winter Lady" – that provide its score. Even the director wasn't quite sure: "I think the reason they worked," Altman said of the tracks, "was because those lyrics were etched in my subconscious, so when I shot the scenes I fitted them to the songs, as if they were written for them." The film opens with Warren Beatty riding into town accompanied by "The Stranger Song," whose drolly delivered yet mesmerizing images of card games, smoky dreams, and notions of risk versus security uncannily distill the themes of Altman's masterpiece. Cohen initially expressed reservations about the film but came around after a second viewing, declaring it "really beautiful."

‘The West Wing,’ “Hallelujah”

Jeff Buckley's haunting version of the much-utilized Cohen ballad soundtracks the climax of the third season finale of Aaron Sorkin's D.C. TV drama. After Secret Service Agent Simon Donovan (Mark Harmon) is gunned down during a bodega robbery, the opening "secret" chords begin. At a theater performance, White House Press Secretary C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney) is told of her bodyguard/potential romantic interst's death; the news sends her wandering distraught and dazed through Times Square. We cut between her eventual public break down, and the sight of investigators arriving at the crime scene as Buckley's voice wafts upward in desperate prayer.

‘True Detective,’ “Nevermind”

There are any number of reasons to want to push the off-the-rails second season of HBO's anthology show out of your memory; the stellar credit sequence, however, is the one major keeper from this sophomore slump. And it's Cohen's track off of 2014's Popular Problems, playing over ominous overhead shots of Los Angeles freeways and the cast silhouetted against blood-red landscapes, that really makes the expressionist titles pop. "I've dug some graves/you'll never find," the troubadour croaks, sounding like the Grim Reaper pouring himself a stiff shot of Scotch before taking some souls. "I have a name/But never mind." Those lyrics lend a sense of mystery and majesty to this Hell-Ay noir before we've even seen a frame of the show's cops-and-mobsters tale. That the series never got better than those opening moments is a shame, but never mind. It showed impeccable taste upfront.

‘Natural Born Killers,’ “The Future”

Oliver Stone's 1994 satirical take on the tabloid-fueled rise of sexy serial-killer celebrities Mickey and Mallory Knox opens with what's essentially a music video for Cohen's sardonic, pessimistic prophecy. Juliette Lewis's Mallory shimmies in a bikini top and tight pants in a divey New Mexico desert cafe as Woody Harrelson's Mickey watches discreetly from his seat at the counter. A customer sidles sleazily up to Mallory, who teases him a bit before brutally kicking his ass. When the guy's buddy tries to intervene, Mickey guts him with a knife. The mayhem proceeds from there – all the while, Cohen's burlap voice repeats its warning: "I've seen the future, it is murder." Yes, it most certainly is.

‘The L Word,’ “I’m Your Man”

If Cohen's music sounded increasingly sophisticated throughout the Seventies and Eighties, it was largely due to his refusal to be pinned down. Many of his best songs unfurl like authoritatively declaimed Zen koans (pun intended), and the title track of his great 1988 album was a one-size-fits-all come-on any Buddhist Casanova might envy. Which made it ideal for the slightly surreal parking-garage dance number performed by genderqueer Ivan Aycock (Kelly Lynch) for Kit Porter (Pam Grier) in the final episode of this groundbreaking series' first season. The steam builds as Ivan vamps around his car, lip-syncing Cohen's lyrics ("I sweated over that one," he said of the song) and making the receptive Kit an offer she can't refuse: "If you want a driver, climb inside/ Or if you want to take me for a ride/ You know you can/ I'm your man."

‘Transparent,’ “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye”

Leonard Cohen arrived on the cusp of the sexual revolution, which turned out to be a lot messier than anyone could have predicted – and the gender politics reflected in Transparent are, if anything, even more complicated. Heard in the end credits of this episode, in which an elderly woman decides to mercy-kill her coma-debilitated husband, the singer's gently devastating kiss-off to his lover in "Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye" resonates with equal parts affection and flight. One of the relatively lighter tunes on his 1967 debut, the wave-like lines of "No Way to Say Goodbye" have much to say about the universally ambivalent relationships at the center of the Amazon show's ongoing meditation on selfishness and the price of personal satisfaction.

‘Secretary,’ “I’m Your Man”

"If you want a lover/I'll do anything you ask me to," goes the first line of Cohen's swooning slow-burn of a love song, a perfect encapsulation of the power dynamics involved in this 2002 indie about a boss (James Spader), his new personal assistant (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and their burgeoning S&M-fuelled relationship. Right before that lyric drops, however, we hear the sounds of spanking mixing with the tune's synthesizers, and what could be pleasure, pain or some combo of the two. We watch as Gyllenhaal's secretary crawls on all fours, eats out of her master's hand and has a riding saddle placed on her back. "And if you want another kind of love/I'll wear a mask for you," Cohen's voice intones, and by the end of the sequence, his lyrics almost feel like dictation for the mutually appreciated degradation.

‘Shrek,’ “Hallelujah”

In 2001, a brand new generation of Cohen listeners was born, thanks to the most unlikely of sources: a ginat, flatulent green ogre. The DreamWorks animation hit became an unlikely vessel of Baby's First Leonard Cohen discovery when the film used John Cale's cover of "Hallelujah" to highlight a heartbreaking sense of melancholy within a mostly humorous, off-kilter kid's film. This is the sound that greats Shrek when returns to his swamp after suffering what he thought was a rejection from the princess he had fallen in love with. The film's official soundtrack features Rufus Wainwright's cover instead of Cale's version, but either way, you can't go wrong; if you have to listen to different versions of this most covered of Cohen's songs, these are two of the best.

‘Take This Waltz,’ “Take This Waltz”

Sarah Polley named her second film for Cohen’s song, a stately invitation to a melancholy kind of love that soundtracks a time lapse montage of a couple starting a new life together. The opening notes play as a seated Margot (Michelle Williams) looks back and smiles in recognition at someone. This is Daniel (Luke Kirby), the man she left her husband for – and as Cohen sings we see the pair in a brightly lit loft space, kissing and having sex. Time is illustrated by the addition of more furniture to the room and the couple’s evolution from passionate and adventurous (not one but two different threesomes) to placid, with the two sitting together on the couch watching television as the song wraps up. It’s evolution of a domesticated relationship in three and a half minutes.

‘The O.C.,’ “Hallelujah”

This perennial Cohen soundtrack favorite was used twice over the course of the teen soap, and both instances highlighted devastating moments in the relationship of tragic lovers Marissa and Ryan. In the Season One finale, bad boy Ryan must leave the wealthy town of Newport where he had been living; Jeff Buckley's cover plays as the kid leaves for Chino and his girlfriend drinks away her pain. In Season Three, Imogen Heap's version soundtracks Marissa's tragic death after a car crash – with Ryan left holding his girlfriend in his arms one last time as the scene flashes back to the two of them years ago.You may begin weeping now.

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