British filmmaker Tony Palmer is the only two-time winner of the Prix d’Italia (the most prestigious international television award). His long and rich career, encompassing over 100 films, has been marked by a fascination with musicians, beginning with his first film about Benjamin Britten—made for the BBC soon after he graduated from Cambridge University. Alongside Leonard Cohen, who he shot for the 1972 film Bird on a Wire, he’s profiled Maria Callas, Margot Fonteyn, John Osborne, André Previn, Igor Stravinsky and Yehudi Mehunin, among many others. He is currently working on a film about Gustav Holst. Here, he talks about his first encounter with Cohen.
I was a music critic for the [British] Observer from 1967 to 74. I had written a piece about Leonard's first LP, Songs From a Room, and said that here was clearly a very extraordinary poet. I said he deserved comparison with Bob Dylan, because he was trying to say something. I think Leonard had seen it, but Marty Machat, his manager, had definitely seen it. [Machat] got hold of me and, in October 1971, flew me to New York to discuss a Leonard Cohen project. I hadn't been there more than ten minutes when Leonard Cohen walked in. Leonard was told to leave the room—all in very good humor. Marty then told me that Leonard was extremely worried that [his] first three LPs had not sold at all, or very little, in America. I discovered later, which Marty didn't tell me, [that] he'd actually been dropped by Columbia, so Marty was in a bit of a panic. Then Leonard was re-admitted, and we chatted away a bit. He asked what I was going to do about the music. I remember I laid down one very strict condition: “If we are going to do this, what interests me is you as a man, and also the poems”—and I produced my copy of [Cohen’s sixth book of poetry] The Energy of Slaves. I think that’s what clinched it, because Leonard thought, “Christ, he's not only listened to the records, but he's actually read the poetry!”
There is a conflict within him, the poet. He says in the film: “I wrote these songs to myself and to women, several years ago, and it is a curious thing to be trapped in that original effort. Because here I wanted to tell one person, one thing––and now I am in the situation where I must repeat them, like some parrot, chained to his stand, night after night.” On the one hand [while filming] he was very aware of the kind of intimacy of my process; that really coincided with the intimate nature of what he was doing. But on the other hand, he was advertising it by allowing me to film him. On his part, he fulfilled his function, even when he's breaking down and bursting into tears. He never did any of that stuff that you see for our benefit. He realized I was doing my very best to get as close as I possibly could to him as a man. The music, with a bit of luck, would take care of itself.