TJFF Review: "Leonard Cohen: Bird on a Wire"

Culture writer Sarah Bauder checks out Bird on a Wire at the TJFF.

Published: May 12th 2011
in Culture » Movies

Leonard Cohen

Esteemed British director Tony Palmer has compiled an oeuvre of more than one hundred films, and collected dozens of awards in his 40-plus-year career.  He has worked with a laundry list of music royalty including The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and Frank Zappa (the heady 1971 cult classic 200 Motels, incidentally available on YouTube if you dare).


In 1972, Palmer was granted unprecedented access to Leonard Cohen for his 20-city European tour that also included stops in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Bird on a Wire is an extremely candid examination of the frenetic life of a touring musician and a revealing portrait of the enigmatic Cohen.


The film includes 17 live performances from the tour and footage of Cohen reading several poems. Most surprisingly, Bird on a Wire captures Cohen in the most intimate moments, including hitting on women and in tears after the final tour performance in Jerusalem.


Palmer was on hand prior to the screening, reiterating the rather complex history of the documentary. Evidently, after Leonard Cohen watched the film he was inexplicably concerned that Palmer’s version portrayed him as “confrontational”. Palmer gave Cohen the original material, and subsequently he spent two years and more than $200,000 of his own money re-editing a second version of the film. “Version II” opened and closed in one night, due to appalling reviews from both critics and fans. Neither Palmer nor Cohen knew the whereabouts of the original version.


Fast-forward to 2009, where 294 rolls of raw footage and the complete soundtrack to the film where discovered in a Los Angeles warehouse. For six months, Palmer painstakingly pieced together just under 3,000 footage fragments to correspond with the soundtrack, resulting in Bird on a Wire in its present form. Palmer proudly explained that the film is 95 percent of the original version -- a feat unto itself.


Bird on a Wire has screened at several festivals (including the Toronto Jewish Film Festival) to considerable acclaim. The DVD version of Bird on a Wire (and all of Palmer’s films for that matter) is available is available at


The Toronto Jewish Film Festival runs until May 15 2011. Visit .

Related articles: (Leonard Cohen, Toronto Jewish Film Festival, TJFF, Leonard Cohen Bird on a Wire)

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