The great Leonard Cohen moments in film

To mark the release of Nick Broomfield's Leonard Cohen doc Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love, we highlight some of our favourite movie needle drops featuring the music of the much-missed Canadian singer-songwriter

Feature by Josh Slater-Williams | 17 Jun 2019
  • Great Leonard Cohen moments in film

With Nick Broomfield’s documentary Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love, an in-depth look at the relationship between Leonard Cohen and muse Marianne Ihlen, playing at the Edinburgh International Film Festival this month and on general release in July, we thought it an appropriate time to highlight some of our favourite Cohen needle drops in cinema.

Whether with his own voice or through cover versions, many films and TV shows have made stirring use of Cohen’s music, though there is no instance in which the songs in question were written with the intention of featuring in that movie or episode.

For inclusion in the small selection below, we’ve stuck to the following criteria: feature films only, one entry per song, and Cohen recordings only, not covers of his work.

Natural Born Killers (Oliver Stone, 1994)

Oliver Stone’s satirical black comedy thriller uses three songs from Cohen's (then) most-recent album The Future to memorable effect. That album’s title track takes viewers into the end credits, while Waiting for the Miracle starts the film. But the most striking use of Cohen comes just before the final scene.

As mass murderers Mickey and Mallory Knox (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis) escape from prison during a full-scale riot, with captured reporter Wayne Gale (Robert Downey Jr) in tow, the second verse of Cohen’s Anthem kicks in, the lyrics seeming to clearly identify with the killers as they manage their exit:

Can't run no more
with that lawless crowd
while the killers in high places
say their prayers out loud.

As the song continues, the final chorus becomes louder in the film’s mix, sung in an almost gospel-like fashion by the backup singers, as the track now plays over the brutal lynching of the trapped Warden McClusky (Tommy Lee Jones), whose severed head on a stick didn’t make the theatrical cut.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman, 1971)

The soundscapes of Robert Altman’s anti-Western are so reliant on the beautiful recurring use of three Cohen songs – The Stranger Song, Sisters of Mercy and Winter Lady – that it’s hard to believe they weren’t originally written for the scenes. The opening use of The Stranger Song is one of the film’s highlights, scoring Warren Beatty’s slow riding into the Old West mining town where he’ll both make his fortune and eventually lose everything.

Exotica (Atom Egoyan, 1994)

While there’s a very good use of Cohen’s Everybody Knows in Allan Moyle’s pirate radio teen movie Pump Up the Volume, the greatest incorporation of the track is in Atom Egoyan’s lush, seductive drama Exotica. It’s the recurring theme to the strip-club routine of Mia Kirshner’s character, Christina. Like the song, the sombre dance is both seductive and ominous. Roger Ebert described Exotica as a “deep, painful film about those closed worlds of stage-managed lust”. With its mix of disco-esque sounds and pessimistic lyrics concerning societal woes, Everybody Knows is a perfect fit for a film that's partly about uncomfortable truths behind facades.

Cold Water (Olivier Assayas, 1994)

Evidently, there was just something about the films of 1994 and the songs of Leonard Cohen. The second half of Olivier Assayas’ early-career masterpiece, a 70s-set story of teenage love and rebellion, is set almost wholly at a late-night party at a dilapidated country estate. Songs from the likes of Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Alice Cooper and Uriah Heep play out in their near-entirety, as does Leonard Cohen’s Avalanche.

Cold Water is a film where the brink of explosion is omnipresent, be it via the literal fire burning on the edge of the party, physical outbursts or emotional breakdowns. In the transcendent Avalanche sequence, what explodes is someone’s internal barriers stopping them from pursuing what they want. After an intimate slow dance, featuring the lightest of forehead kisses between two close friends, Christine (Virginie Ledoyen) stops hiding her feelings and just swoops in and kisses Gilles (Cyprien Fouquet) on the lips. And then can’t seem to stop.

Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love screens at Edinburgh International Film Festival on 29 & 30 Jun (tickets here) and is released 26 Jul by Dogwoof

Cold Water is available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection; Natural Born Killers & McCabe & Mrs. Miller are available on Blu-ray from Warner Bros; Exotica is available on Blu-ray from Curzon Artificial Eye

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