There’s yet to be a rock documentary that doesn’t make touring look absolutely dreadful, and Tony Palmer’s once-lost Bird on a Wire about Leonard Cohen’s troubled 1972 tour doesn’t help. It may not be a coincidence that Bird opens with a frazzled Cohen pleading with the security officers on the tour’s penultimate night not to attack the audience, a scene Palmer had to know would evoke the Altamont sequence in the Rolling Stones documentary Gimme Shelter.
Bird also makes for an interesting contrast with the lesser-seen Cocksucker Blues, about the Stones’ own ill-fated 1972 tour. But where Cocksucker showed a flamboyant rock band mired in drugs and debauchery — hence the band suppressing the film — Cohen chain-smokes and declines groupies, trying to keep his shit together between his insecurities about singing his personal acoustic songs to adoring crowds and the persistent technical mishaps.
Cohen was touring for Songs of Love and Hate, so most of the songs are from his unimpeachable first three albums, while the squealing feedback from the monitors sounds like a precursor to Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music. Nobody’s ever really themselves on camera, but when Palmer zooms in on Cohen’s tear-streaked face, Bird on a Wire feels like an honest portrait of a man just barely hanging on.
Bird on a Wire
Opens Friday at the Roxie Theater.