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Cohen’s musical stories exert a powerful pull

Canadian Creativity 2012

“Various Positions,” Ira Nadel’s biography of Leonard Cohen, tells the story of a 1971 phone call Cohen received from Robert Altman.

The not-yet-legendary Altman wanted to use songs from Cohen’s debut album to score his anti-western “McCabe & Mrs. Miller.” After struggling to persuade Cohen of his artistic viability, Altman flippantly mentioned his biggest commercial failure, “Brewster McCloud.”

Coincidentally, Cohen had seen the film twice earlier that day and promptly gave Altman cart blanche to use any music from his back catalog. Thus sparked the first usage of Cohen’s music in cinema.

Over the past couple of decades, Cohen’s work has been placed on the soundtracks of numerous pictures, including “Pump up the Volume” to “Watchmen” and most recently, “Barney’s Version.”

Music supervisor Liz Gallacher, who worked on “Barney’s Version,” believes that supervisors are drawn to Cohen because he is simply “a poet who tells great stories.”

“In ‘Barney’s Version,’ ‘I’m Your Man’ sort of sums up Barney Panofski, (the protag played by Paul Giamatti) with its comedic feel and Cohen’s gravelly vocal delivery,” Gallacher says. The track is used as a musical mirror-image of the character and the film itself.

Though Cohen has always been media-shy, he seems to have taken a laissez-faire approach to the licensing of his songs. This is partly a result of financial woes stemming from an ugly 2005 falling-out with former manager Kelley Lynch. One court found that Lynch stole more than $5 million from Cohen, and another sent her to jail for harassing him.

In the aftermath, Cohen decided to tour again and mounted a widely acclaimed international jaunt from 2008-10. Inspired by the performances, Cohen took to the studio, and in January released his first album of new material in more than seven years, titled “Old Ideas.”

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