I have rented and just finished watching two documentaries on DVD, both of which were highly entertaining. They have nothing in common, aside from speaking with or referring to more popular or current musicians who make an appearance to reveal how these two men influenced them in their work.
Leonard Cohen first crossed my radar when "Pump Up The Volume" was released. He had his second round of "15 minutes of fame" around that time; articles in Rolling Stone, mentions by comedians on TV, featured in Entertainment Weekly. My roommate Dave, Jewish like Cohen, played "Everybody Knows" on Columbia's public radio when he next had a chance. We actually made up a chart on our chalkboard in the apartment and kept track of how many times we heard about him in popular culture for about a month.
On the soundtrack, Concrete Blonde does "Everybody Knows", but in the film, it's Cohen's cigarettes-and-gravel vocals that take the film to its pinnacle. Watching U2 reduce themselves to Cohen's band, even singing "oohs" and "doo wah wahs" for him is magical; all four members are totally enthralled by Cohen's presence, even though he admits he "can't carry a tune."
Most of the film centers around a tribute concert performed in January 2005, which at first seems obnoxious -- I wanted to hear Cohen himself. But this tactic redeems itself in that his influence is properly magnified by today's artists who are more direct in explaining Cohen's appeal. Leaving the final act for Cohen to take the mic seems fitting, as he has the bulk of the film to explain his life and where his lyrics come from. This is necessary to flesh out the life of a man who is an ordained monk, lived in Chelsea Hotel with beatniks and Janis Joplin, had the reputation of a lady's man (and still does, even at age 72), but who "laughed bitterly during the 10,000 nights I spent alone", as he puts it.
It's obvious that the singers who pay tribute, and especially Bono, have taken Cohen's philosophy of music and art and life and beauty and tried to the best of their abilities to not stray from that path. Although this is at its core a concert film with a low budget (some of the musicians are interviewed on the day of the show, while Bono and The Edge are cornered in a hallway), it's worthy of the 105 minutes it takes up on DVD at your local Blockbuster.
My favorite moments in this tribute are from Teddy Thompson, who covers "Tonight Will Be Fine", all songs by Rufus Wainwright, although he initially gives the impression that Elton John is nearly as hetero and uptight as Billy Graham, and actually, Rufus' sister, Martha, who seems like she might just be the craziest fuck you could ever have if she could just wrap those legs around your neck and crack your head like a walnut. (Think Famke Janssen in 007's Goldeneye.)
On the other end of the spectrum, there is "The Devil and Daniel Johnston". Raised in West Virginia to strict Christians, this is the tale of a kid who was undisciplined in everything except his art. While Cohen sought out the "regimes, the regimens", the orderly, Daniel acquiesced to every artistic urge he ever had. In his youth, Daniel ignored all attempts to be "converted" to religion, and spent all his free time, and even his schooldays, doodling, playing music, writing songs, and basically just fucking off. Much to his parents' dismay, he seemed hellbent on being "an unprofitable servant of the Lord".
After escaping with the circus and landing in Austin, Texas, Daniel's life changed. While he scammed his way onto MTV, and into a career as a singer/songwriter (besting Stevie Ray Vaughan in a local poll for year's best), he also began to crack under the pressures his parents had for years laid upon him.
While officially diagnosed as bipolar, his behavior could easily be mistaken for schizoid. Talking of the Devil come for him, and prosletyzing to audiences, he became over the years a man-child -- and a legend. When I first saw him perform live in this documentary, I wanted to laugh, but I couldn't. Afterwards, researching his Pearl Jam connection, Eddie said of Johnston "he is not to be mistrusted." I think this sums up Johnston about as well as anything in the film. Daniel's sincerity, his laser-beam focus on creating and being artistic, even on becoming famous, is rare. While others may deal with the consequences this extreme behavior causes in their lives, Daniel is mostly oblivious. Drugs, mental institutions, and even his parents and friends take years to correct the imbalances in his chemistry. Even today, as an adult, he gives the impression of being slightly retarded, and completely eccentric.
What is most unnerving is his place in popular culture. His drawings are hung in art museums -- they're drawn on regular notebook paper. His songs are covered by Beck, the Flaming Lips, and even Pearl Jam -- who did Walking The Cow at Bridge School in 1994. Eddie played Daniel's version of this song early in the setlist for Self-Pollution Radio.
Now his parents take care of Daniel, and his dad takes him to China and South Africa for performances. In Austin, the mod kids forego the statue of Stevie Ray Vaughan and have their picture taken by the record store Daniel frequents, the one where he painted his "Eyeball Frog" mural in 1994. The same Eyeball Frog that Kurt Cobain made famous by wearing it on a t-shirt for several weeks, including at the MTV Music Awards.
Two men, opposites in nearly every aspect, with far-reaching effects upon the musicians we hear today. Both incredibly sincere, and focused. Yet you couldn't find two catalogs of songs more unlike each other.