Spoiler warning: This article features spoilers to the 2011 film Take This Waltz and 2016’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople.
Following Friday morning’s sad news of the death of genius singer-songwriter, poet and novelist Leonard Cohen, we take a journey through memorable uses of his songs on film. The volume of Cohen’s soundtrack credits is staggering; this year alone, 14 television and film projects have included and credited his work, including War Dogs, Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Netflix’s The Fundamentals of Caring.
In recent years one of the most considered and integrated uses of a Leonard Cohen song appeared in Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz (2011). Set and filmed in Cohen’s native Canada (Toronto in this case), Take This Waltz stars Michelle Williams, Luke Kirby and Seth Rogen, and is named after a song which appeared on Cohen’s 1998 album I’m Your Man. Yet writer-director Polley wasn’t the first to borrow both a Cohen song and its title for a film. The 1990 Universal production Bird on a Wire was named for Cohen’s celebrated ‘Bird on the Wire’ (Songs from a Room, 1969) which has been covered by the likes of Johnny Cash and k. d. lang. Bird on a Wire, starring Goldie Hawn and Mel Gibson, was a box office success but a critical flop. Its Cohen association is a strange one. What at first seems like lazy title-borrowing may be something deeper; Hawn’s character is named Marianne, a potential reference to Cohen’s sometime partner and muse Marianne Ihlen, the subject of ‘So Long, Marianne’.
The inclusion of ‘Take This Waltz’ in Polley’s film is more thoughtful and less elusive. Williams plays Margot, a woman torn between devotion to her husband (Rogen) and attraction to Kirby’s character Daniel. The love triangle-dynamic is played on in the title song’s association with the number three (a waltz has triple time). In the film’s final act, ‘Take This Waltz’ plays in its entirety and is used to create a stylisation that stands out from the rest of the film’s mumblecore-esque naturalism. As Cohen sings, we watch a timelapse of Margot and Daniel living in a loft apartment – they dance, decorate, add furniture, have sex, read and watch TV. It’s a collection of fragmented life slices, mundane and extraordinary, pieced together in a montage. Given Margot’s drawn-out indecision throughout the film, it’s difficult to tell whether this scene is supposed to be taken as a true representation of her relationship with Daniel, or as a grass-is-always-greener fantasy of what it would be like. A later tone of melancholy suggests she still isn’t romantically satisfied.
‘Take This Waltz’ has a further relevance to the narrative of Polley’s film. Cohen’s song features the refrain “Ay, ay ay ay/Take this waltz, take this waltz,” each repetition of which is followed by a different lyric. Each variation suggests the sense of a goodbye: “Take this waltz, it’s been dying for years”, “take this waltz/With its ‘I’ll never forget you, you know!'” and “It’s yours now, it’s all that there is”. The sentiment echoes that of Take This Waltz’s final scenes, in which Margot and Lou’s relationship reaches a final bittersweet resolution.
Cohen’s music also proved an apt choice for soundtracking a montage in Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Protagonist Ricky Baker and his adoptive uncle Hec are being tracked through the New Zealand bush by increasingly determined police and social services. A key part of the pursuit is told through montage set to Cohen’s ‘Partisan’ (Songs from a Room, 1969). By this point Ricky and Hec are hiding and evading rather than actually running, and the melancholy rhythms of the song match their cautious pace. Like many scenes in Hunt for the Wilderpeople, this one features an extraordinary set-up and camerawork from cinematographer Lachlan Milne. The camera moves in an apparently continuous circular pan as the actors move around it, coming in and out of the shot as required. This artfulness and complexity is mirrored in the harmonies and instrumentation of ‘Partisan’, and Cohen’s persona also speaks of an on-the-run scenario. His signature drawl is imbued with an air of resignation that perfectly matches the implication of the film’s circular pan. Together these creative decisions suggest inevitability; the police are closing in and Ricky and Hector can’t evade them for much longer. It’s a superb exemplification of cinema’s potential for non-verbal storytelling, amplified by music from a great verbal and musical storyteller.
Rob Burnett, the writer-director of The Fundamentals of Caring, has spoken about how he constructed a scene in his movie around Cohen’s ‘I’m Your Man’, and would have removed it if the production couldn’t secure the rights to the song. In 2014’s Wild Cohen’s music was just as central, forming a part of the film’s soundscape of songs inspired by Cheryl Strayed’s memories of music she mentally replayed for herself while walking the Pacific Coast Trail. Like the songs of Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen’s music has provoked intelligent uses on film, the significations of which suggest the deep personal connections people feel to Cohen’s music.
Rest in Peace Leonard, and thank you for the music.