“Leonard Cohen’s Lonesome Heroes” explores influential musicians, writers and religious icons

By on August 16, 2018

From time to time we feature titles in our Music Documentary section over on Night Flight Plus that explore the influential artists that have inspired recording artists and bands like Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Tom Waits, Led Zeppelin, and Bruce Springsteen, and today we’re happy to add Leonard Cohen’s Lonesome Heroes to our collection.

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This 2010 documentary takes a look at how certain musicians and songwriters have had a major influence on his own musical output, including several country music songwriters and performers, namely Hank Williams, Ray Charles and Tex Ritter (who appears here in a clip singing “High Noon”).

Leonard Cohen was not only inspired by musicians and songwriters, however, but also by some of his personal heroes from the literary world — writers, poets and philosophers — and his spent much of his life taking a deep dive into the spiritual realm, exploring several of the world’s religions, particularly Judaism and Buddhism, as well as listening to the Dalai Lama.

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Leonard Cohen’s Lonesome Heroes begins with a biographical overview on the man himself, who died on November 7, 2016, at the age of 82, just a day before bloviating businessman and prime-time “TV personality” Donald Trump was elected the 45th President of the United States (we’re envious, in that respect, that he picked that exact day to shuffle off this mortal coil).

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In the 1960s and ’70s, Cohen was the songwriter’s songwriter of choice for artists like Judy Collins, James Taylor, Willie Nelson and many others.

Collins — who is seen here performing his song “Bird on a Wire” — provides the most illuminating insights about Leonard Cohen.

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She recorded two of his songs, including the early hit “Suzanne,” on her album In My Life. She’s also recorded a Leonard Cohen tribute album, Judy Collins Sings Leonard Cohen: Democracy.

The documentary, via the UK’s Chrome Dreams imprint, features interspersed footage from quite a few of the individuals who influenced him, including Allen Ginsberg reading from his “Howl,” Jack Kerouac reading from his novel On The Road, and Dylan performing “Mr. Tambourine Man,” as well as commentary from Beat Generation expert John Tytell.

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Leonard Cohen with Allen Ginsberg in 1976

Leonard Cohen’s Lonesome Heroes features footage of Leonard Cohen’s concert performances of “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye,” “Take This Waltz,” and “Tower Of Song,” as well as an interview with Cohen in which he talks about one of his great influences, Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca (Garcia Lorca scholar Leslie Stainton provides essential info here), but otherwise there are no interviews with the man himself.

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Janis Ian with Judy Collins and Leonard Cohen

Read more about Leonard Cohen’s Lonesome Heroes below.

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Here’s what it says on the back of the DVD, originally released in 2010 — this title was also re-issued again in 2015 with a new title, Leonard Cohen: The Daughters Of Zeus:

Although it can be difficult to detect the influences in the work of Leonard Cohen, as with all significant artists he was informed by a far-reaching list of performers, musicians, writers, poets and philosophies.

And, when we look in the right places, his sources reveal themselves in the songs often considered to have emerged fully formed from their composer’s pen.

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In Leonard Cohen’s Lonesome Heroes, the scope and detail of his artistic inspirations are put under the microscope to quite fascinating result. Cohen’s first love was poetry and in both the works of his fellow Canadian Irving Layton, and the Spanish bard Federico Garcia Lorca, he found the words that moved him to create his own verse.

The beat writers too hit a positive note with Cohen and their work has lived with him throughout his career.

While it may come as no surprise to find Bob Dylan and Judy Collins included in this film, a less acknowledged genre of interest to Leonard is country music — but he was deeply affected by performers such as Hank Williams, Hank Snow and the country recordings of Ray Charles.

And the fact his records have always achieved greater success in Europe than in North America may be due in part to his love of the Belgian chansonnier Jacques Brel.

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These and many others artists are here shown to have played a crucial role in the formation of Leonard Cohen’s muse.

But religion and spirituality too have contributed enormously to Leonard’s life and music, particularly the faith into which he was born, Judaism, and his more recent study of Buddhism, which drove him to spend several years in a monastery meditating for hours every day.

With the aid of rare and classic performance footage of both Cohen and those he has been influenced by most, archive interview and film of Leonard, seldom seen photographs, plus exclusive contributions from those who have worked closely with him, this fascinating and wholly unique film is all at once informative, inspiring and eminently watchable, and is bound to delight everyone with even a hint of interest in the man.

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The film features new interviews with Judy Collins; his biographer Ira Nadel; poet and Cohen academic Stephen Scobie; the man who guided Leonard through the rituals at the Mount Baldy Buddhist Monastery, Kigen; former Rolling Stone magazine editor, Anthony De Curtis and many other notable colleagues, friends and experts.

Watch Leonard Cohen’s Lonesome Heroes — and be sure to check out the Music Documentary and Under Review (“Under the Influence”) sections too — on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.