Bird on a Wire: Up-close and personal portrait of genius

A candid 1970s documentary on Leonard Cohen premieres this month. Chris Mugan despairs of today's bland rock films

This month, a field in Wales hosts a film premiere, with the carpet rolled out for a music documentary not seen for 36 years. Bird on a Wire, shot during Leonard Cohen's 1972 European tour, will finally be shown as its maker intended at the Green Man Festival. Why the film was lost for so long is down to the fickleness of its subject. Despite his own famous indiscretion when he revealed the identity of the accommodating female protagonist in "Chelsea Hotel # 2", the poet-cum-singer got cold feet over this particular project. At the time, Cohen was on the verge of giving up live performance, so agreed to his manager's idea that a film could reach a wider audience.

His suggested director, Tony Palmer, was already an acclaimed film-maker, thanks to his documentary on music and politics, All My Loving, and notorious thanks to work on Frank Zappa's half-baked surrealist road movie, 200 Motels. Palmer would go on to achieve a minor coup, with his insight into the underground Northern soul scene, The Wigan Casino, and found further fame with his rock history All You Need Is Love, but even in the early Seventies he could insist on complete access to his subject.

Cohen assented to this, but decided the finished product was too confrontational. An eviscerated version limped out two years later and soon disappeared. Having had nothing to do with that print, Palmer neglected to keep a copy of his effort, so was overjoyed when the original rolls of film were discovered last year in a Hollywood warehouse. Even better, he has been allowed to re-create his original vision. Judging from snippets uploaded to YouTube, this ought to be a treat for any fan of the Canadian bard, but the film's importance goes way beyond nostalgia.

What is important is the intellectual heft that Palmer brought to the music documentary. You get a sense of his idealism in the access he demanded, but the director also wanted to break down the mystique between audience and idol. Early-Seventies music and confected glitter rock or Roxy Music's arty post-modern poses may spring to mind, but there was also a desire to show the graft behind the artifice. One of the most unlikely, yet rewarding, examples of this kind of insightful documentary is Slade in Flame. In this gritty depiction of a band's meteoric rise, Noddy Holder and friends play the members of Flame, a group that start out on the grubby club circuit and achieve fame after making various compromises.

Limited actors themselves, the show is stolen by Johnny Shannon, who had first found fame as Harry Flowers in Performance, and a young Tom Conti. Neither plays a goody in this dark look at showbiz. The former all too convincingly takes the role of the band's crooked manager, who vies for control of his charges with a smooth-talking marketeer, played by Conti, who cooks up the publicity stunts that gain notoriety for Flame. From dodgy contracts to pirate radio payola, Slade in Flame provides meaningful insights into the music industry's seamy underbelly, some of it based on Slade's own reminiscences.

Fat chance today's artists would allow their images to be undermined like this. Rather than letting TV producers or film-makers get on with things, we have cross-platform, multimedia releases that merely provide extra marketing channels that the artists themselves increasingly control. Take Stones in Exile, the film of the making of Exile on Main Street that the Rolling Stones ensured fit the campaign for their album's re-release.

About the only rock-related film of recent times to offer any unguarded insight was Metallica's Some Kind of Monster from 2003, which revealed the emotional tensions at the heart of a successful group. With its footage of a strung-out Cohen suffering the rigours of a hectic touring schedule, Bird on a Wire provides something similar, a reminder that rock films can be more than promotional fluff.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers