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Collection Showcases Leonard Cohen Was 'Preoccupied With Brokenness'

Musician Leonard Cohen left behind many unpublished poems and lyrics when he died in 2016. Now his son Adam, who spoke to Fresh Air in 2018, has a new album of his dad's songs, Thanks for the Dance.


Other segments from the episode on November 22, 2019

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 22, 2019: Interview with Adam Cohen; Review of film 'A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.'



This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen died in 2016 at age 82, weeks after releasing a new album called "You Want It Darker."

That album was produced by his son, Adam Cohen, who also collected some of his father's final poems, lyrics, notebook entries and drawings in a book called "The Flame." It's now out in paperback. Adam wrote the book's foreword as well and also took some of the outtakes from his father's "You Want It Darker" recording sessions and has produced and completed them. This new posthumous Leonard Cohen album, "Thanks For The Dance," comes out today.

Speaking to The New York Times earlier this week about the new album, Adam Cohen talked about bringing back some of his father's longtime collaborators. He said, quote, "there's that Jewish tradition of bringing a tiny rock or stone to a grave site. I felt like every person was there to just humbly deposit their little rock near the engraving of his name," unquote. Adam Cohen was born in Montreal in 1972 and is a singer-songwriter himself. His album, "Like A Man," went gold in Canada in 2012. Terry Gross spoke with Adam Cohen last year.

Before we hear their conversation, let's listen to a song from the new "Thanks For The Dance" Leonard Cohen album that Adam produced. This track is called "Happens To The Heart."


LEONARD COHEN: (Singing) I was always working steady, but I never called it art. I got my [expletive] together, meeting Christ and reading Marx. It failed my little fire, but it's bright, the dying spark. Go tell the young messiah what happens to the heart.


TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Adam Cohen, welcome to FRESH AIR. I just want to start by saying I loved your father's music. I loved his writing. And I feel privileged to have had the chance to hear him in concert and to talk with him on our show. And I'm grateful for the chance to talk with you today. So thank you for being here.

When I interviewed your father in 2006, after the publication of a book of his poems and songs, he asked to read a poem that he'd just written that hadn't yet been published. But it's now published in this new book, "The Flame." So I thought it would be a perfect way to start with your father's reading of that poem, "A Street," from our 2006 interview.


L COHEN: (Reading) I used to be your favorite drunk, good for one more laugh. Then we both ran out of luck, and luck was all we had. You put on a uniform to fight the Civil War. I tried to join, but no one liked the side I'm fighting for. So let's drink to when it's over, and let's drink to when we meet. I'll be waiting on this corner where there used to be a street.

(Reading) It wasn't all that easy when you up and walked away, but I'll leave that little story for another rainy day. I know your burden's heavy as you wheel it through the night. The guru says it's empty, but that doesn't mean it's light. So let's drink to when it's over, and let's drink to when we meet. I'll be standing on this corner where there used to be a street.

(Reading) You left me with the dishes and a baby in the bath. And you're tight with the militias, and you wear their camouflage. Well, I guess that makes us equal. But I want to march with you, just an extra in the sequel to the old red, white and blue. So let's drink to when it's over, and let's drink to when we meet. I'll be waiting on this corner where there used to be a street.

(Reading) It's going to be September now for many years to come, many hearts adjusting to that strict September drum. I see the ghost of culture with numbers on his wrist salute some new conclusion that all of us have missed. So let's drink to when it's over, and let's drink to when we meet. I'll be waiting on this corner where there used to be a street.

GROSS: That's Leonard Cohen recorded on our show in 2006. His son, Adam Cohen, is my guest. And the new posthumous collection of Leonard Cohen's final poems, lyrics, notebooks and drawings is called "The Flame." It's just been published, and it includes the poem that we just heard. Adam, what does it mean to you to have so much of your father's latest, you know, his - the work he did before he died collected in this new book?

ADAM COHEN: (Laughter) You know, first of all, I'm just so struck by hearing my father's voice, which I seem to be listening to almost more than I ever did, even when he was alive. I love his poetry. I love his words. I love the way he marshals language. I am - I'm weary (ph) of discussing my father. I always have been, especially when you have a person who had such an inimitable way of - and command of language.

So I'm hesitant. And I didn't even know whether I should - I'm not certain I should be here speaking about him. But it's a stirring subject, and I have been enlisted. I'm enlisted in the campaign to let everybody know how wonderful I think he was. But I feel like such a shabby impostor, trying to be the (foreign language spoken) for him - you know? - the ambassador of this particular book, which I had very little to do with, frankly, other than offering a title for it or...

GROSS: You wrote a very eloquent introduction, which I will be quoting as time goes on here (laughter).

A COHEN: Thank you.

GROSS: So I think you've said he left behind, like, lockers' worth of notebooks. What are you doing with them? I mean, you're describing - like, he was always writing. There was always, like, cocktail napkins and pages and - in his pockets. You found a notebook in the freezer once. So what are you doing with the findings?

A COHEN: Well, it's amazing. There's so much paperwork to go through. From the simplest point of view, there's the archival work, which is assembling everything and trying to pay homage to it for posterity. Then there's the completion of works of his. In this instance, it's "The Flame," this book. And then there were also some songs which I was tasked with finishing, you know.

You may know I produced his last record called "You Want It Darker." And while working with him, many, many poems were read, sometimes to a mere kick drum - you know? - just for meter, for tempo. And so there's this sense of responsibility to keep the songs alive, as he always used to say.

GROSS: I want to play the title song on the final album that was released when your father, Leonard Cohen, was still alive. It's called "You Want It Darker." And then we'll talk about working with him on it. And this is - it's - what can I say? It's a great song.


L COHEN: If you are the dealer, I'm out of the game. If you are the healer, it means I'm broken and lame. If thine is the glory, then mine must be the shame. You want it darker, we kill the flame. Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name. Vilified, crucified in the human frame. A million candles burning for the help that never came. You want it darker. Hineni, hineni. I'm ready, my Lord.


GROSS: That's Leonard Cohen from the final album that was released while he was alive, the title track, "You Want It Darker." My guest is his son, Adam Cohen, who wrote the introduction to a new collection of Leonard Cohen's final poems, notebook entries, lyrics and drawings called "The Flame."

That song is so much about facing death and of having a God who allows suffering and accepting the suffering but yet not being, like, happy about it or trying to make it seem like suffering's great (laughter). You know, he's not trying to be spiritual in a dismissive way of all the suffering that we endure.

I want to read what he wrote about you for the liner notes of this album. He wrote that without your contribution there would be no record. He said, (reading) at a certain point, after over a year of intense labor, both Pat - who wrote the melodies - and I coincidentally broke down with severe back injuries and other disagreeable visitations. In my case, the situation was bleak, the discomfort acute, and the project was abandoned.

(Reading) Adam sensed that my recovery, if not my survival, depended on my getting back to work. He took over the project, established me in a medical chair to sing and brought these unfinished songs to completion, preserving of course many of Pat's haunting musical themes. It is because of my son's loving encouragement and skilled administration that these songs exist in their present form. I cannot thank him enough.

What were you able to do for him physically to make it possible for him to record the album? He mentions you put him in a medical chair. Can you describe the setup that you helped create for him?

A COHEN: I think maybe the more interesting thing, certainly to me, would be to just say that we were riding some kind of mysterious wind and the grace of the occasion. There was an urgency to the entire mission. And of course that had to do with his serious health issues. He was immobilized. He had multiple compression fractures of his spine. And it involved an incredible monastic effort on his part to be present and to deliver the way he did.

But there's something about his work in general not just on the last album but in this book and in general. He invites you into your own inner life because he takes the inner life seriously. He's not like one of these contemporaries - I won't mention any names, but there are many wonderful contemporaries of his who have, in my estimation, become nostalgia acts.

They're nostalgia acts because they're somehow - they've succumbed to the temptation of going back into their older catalog. And they're regurgitating things, whereas this man was speaking from the very rung that he found himself at in life.

BIANCULLI: Adam Cohen speaking to Terry Gross last year. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's interview from last year with singer-songwriter Adam Cohen, the son of singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen. A posthumous new Leonard Cohen album, "Thanks For The Dance," comes out today.


GROSS: I'm going to ask you to read a poem that's published in the new collection, in the posthumous collection of Leonard Cohen's works. So is there something that you could choose that would be relevant to what we're talking about now?

A COHEN: You know what? I don't want to read these poems. I think that in some way or another, if we could urge people to consult the work with smaller samples - otherwise, it takes a kind of lugubrious tone that I think he would have been very, very reticent to have accepted.

GROSS: I'm wondering if you think that's because, like, when your father sang his songs or read his poems, there was this really dark quality, but there was this, like, kind of existential distance from it at the same time and a transcendent quality as well that made for a really complicated mix of emotion. Is that what is troubling you about the idea of you reading the poems yourself, that he brought this kind of just - you know, even through his voice, this complicated quality of whatever pain or anguish and spirituality he was expressing at the same time, and that you don't feel like you could?

A COHEN: I think it's simpler than that. You know, I'm reminded of so, so many lines in which he talked about the solitude of the experience of reading. And there's so many poems in which he alludes to the idea that this is a private matter. And so there's something contradictory. It feels like a transgression for me to read them.

GROSS: I appreciate you saying that as his son. But as a fan of your father's work, I will say that he performed his work in concerts to large crowds of people. And there are so many performers who have performed his songs. So they have - his work has a life outside of his mouth.

A COHEN: Thank goodness.

GROSS: And his work has a life outside of the solitary experience of a reader sitting alone in his room, quietly reading his poems. So I just...

A COHEN: Oh, and his...

GROSS: ...Want to get on the record (laughter) as saying that.

A COHEN: No, and I'll go one step further with what you're saying just because I don't believe that they're contradictory in a sense. I mean, this is a man who's put the word hallelujah on many - on millions of people's lips, you know? So that's the sound of a preacher man. Of course, when it's attached to song, it's supposed to lift and exist the way songs have always existed.

I just mean that there's something about reading the poetry that feels instructional or has a kind of rigor to it, a lugubrious quality that I don't believe was intended. There's something more beautiful about the notion of people quietly thumbing through this book and observing and, as I say, really taking the time with the jewels that are embedded in every line, taking their own time, not with my meter, not with my voice.

GROSS: Well, since you've declined to read more poems by your father, I'm going to play him reading...

A COHEN: I hope I'm not being cantankerous or intransigent.

GROSS: No, it's just - I'd be lying if I didn't say it was a little disappointing. But I can live with that. So I thought I'd play your father reading another poem of his from the interview that we recorded in 2006. And this is a poem called "Titles." And it was published in a book that he did in 2006 of poems and lyrics. So this is Leonard Cohen recorded in 2006 on FRESH AIR.


L COHEN: (Reading) I had the title poet. And maybe I was one for a while. Also, the title singer was kindly accorded me, even though I could barely carry a tune. For many years, I was known as a monk. I shaved my head and wore robes and got up very early. I hated everyone, but I acted generously, and no one found me out. My reputation as a lady's man was a joke. It caused me to laugh bitterly through the 10,000 nights I spent alone.

(Reading) From a third-story window above the Parc du Portugal, I have watched the snow come down all day. As usual, there's no one here. There never is. Mercifully, the inner conversation is cancelled by the white noise of winter. I am neither the mind, the intellect, nor the silent voice within. That's also canceled. And now, gentle reader, in what name, in whose name do you come to idle with me in these luxurious and dwindling realms of aimless privacy?

GROSS: I think that poem, Adam, gets to a little about what you were talking about - the connection of your father writing in solitude and the reader reading alone...

A COHEN: And as you noted...

GROSS: ...And entering his solitude, yeah. solitude.

A COHEN: As you noted, also a kind of humor, you know, embedded.

GROSS: Absolutely.

A COHEN: I remember - I loved one of his lines where he says, it feels so good not to love you like I did. It's like they tore away my blindfold and said, we're going to let this prisoner live. I always thought that was hilarious.

BIANCULLI: Adam Cohen, the son of singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, speaking to Terry Gross last year. A book collection of Leonard Cohen's formerly unpublished writings and drawings, titled "The Flame," is now out in paperback. A new posthumous Leonard Cohen album, "Thanks For The Dance," comes out today. After a break, we'll continue Terry's conversation with Adam Cohen. And film critic Justin Chang will review the new movie "A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood" in which Tom Hanks players children's TV host Fred Rogers. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross, back with more of Terry's interview from last year with singer-songwriter Adam Cohen, the son of singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen. Adam produced his father's "You Want It Darker" album, released just weeks before Leonard Cohen's death. Adam also compiled his father's formerly unpublished writings and drawings in a collection called "The Flame" now out in paperback. And a new posthumous Leonard Cohen comes out today, titled "Thanks For The Dance."


GROSS: Is there a song you remember from your childhood that sticks in your mind, a song that meant a lot to you, maybe even a song you remember your father writing?

A COHEN: I mean, when I was really young, I remember him composing "Hallelujah."

GROSS: You remember him writing it?

A COHEN: Oh, yeah. And I remember him being - it took him 12 years (laughter). So, you know, it started when I was very, very young. I'd hear verses. I think there were 84 verses to that song. I remember coming down to the kitchen table. And he was there with a nylon-string guitar in his underwear. And there would always be verses to consult.

And I remember even being invited to sing with a group of people in New York City when he was recording the song for his own album, which, by the way, Sony at the time didn't want to put out. It's an amazing turn of events to have this man's popularity have grown.

You know, he lived in a kind of iconic anonymity if you buy those two - if you buy that unlikely union. And to have grown in popularity so much at the end of his life and for - to get back to your question - for me to have sat on the side of the stage, you know, watching my old man at 5 years old and all the way up to - into my 40s, the whole canon of his work is living inside of me, is playing in my head, is triggered by conversation.

GROSS: Yeah. So for "Hallelujah," as you say, there were 84 verses. I don't think he ever recorded all 84.

A COHEN: (Laughter).

GROSS: But did it take 12 years and 84 verses before he considered it completed because of dissatisfaction with the verses that he'd previously written or because there was still so much he wanted to say in the format of that song?

A COHEN: As the - a popular poem states, a poem is never finished but rather abandoned.

GROSS: (Laughter) Do you think he was frustrated working on it for so long or that it was satisfying?

A COHEN: I think frustration was expected. The success of being able to let it go was the unexpected. You know, I think he - as I say, he was very vocational. From the earliest stage, he would wake up earlier than anybody he knew to blacken pages and gave up an enormous amount or what he would refer to as compromised an enormous amount. I'll go back to that song. I came so far for beauty. I left so much behind. My patience and my family, my masterpiece unsigned.

GROSS: You know, you quote that, you know, some people subscribe to the philosophy first thought, best thought. And that's often attributed to one of the beat writers, but that your father believed last thought, best thought.


A COHEN: Yeah, he believed...

GROSS: So he edited - I take it he edited his songs a lot. He went through a lot of drafts.

A COHEN: It was a constant process of filtration and refinement for certain.

GROSS: So why don't we hear "Hallelujah," your father's version?

A COHEN: Sure.


GROSS: OK, so this is Leonard Cohen - yeah, go ahead.

A COHEN: You know, there was a moratorium on that song, you know, in my family. So (laughter)...

GROSS: Oh, is that right? Is that...

A COHEN: ...I get - yeah, it feels like a transgression. Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah.

A COHEN: Please refrain from playing "Hallelujah."

GROSS: Because...

A COHEN: Oh, I feel like - I think he felt like, you know, it was going to cause Leonard Cohen fatigue or something, you know. Or, you know, give some other songs a chance to get played (laughter). It was partly a joke and partly his own exhaustion, I think, with the song.

GROSS: So in spite of the moratorium your family has on "Hallelujah," I think we'll play it anyways. Are you OK with that?

A COHEN: Oh, God. Yeah, I'm going to report you to the bully police.

GROSS: (Laughter) OK. So here it is.


L COHEN: (Singing) Now, I've heard there was a secret chord that David played, and it pleased the Lord. But you don't really care for music, do you? It goes like this. The fourth, the fifth, the minor fall. The major lift. The baffled king composing hallelujah.

UNIDENTIFIED CHORUS: (Singing) Hallelujah, hallelujah. Hallelujah, hallelujah.

L COHEN: (Singing) Your faith was strong, but you needed proof.


GROSS: That's Leonard Cohen singing "Hallelujah," and my guest is Leonard Cohen's son, Adam Cohen. And there's a - he wrote the introduction to a new collection of posthumously-published Leonard Cohen lyrics, poems, notebook entries and drawings. And it's called "The Flame."

So, you know, "Hallelujah" - I think like 200 people have recorded "Hallelujah." And - but it didn't become well-known until Jeff Buckley recorded it, like, maybe 10 years or more after your father recorded it, which is just so strange. But it's a sign of how, I think, there was a period of years when your father's genius wasn't fully acknowledged. When - you know, he had the initial period of hits. And then I think people just - a lot of people just kind of drifted away and then rediscovered him. And what was it like for you and for him during that period when, I think, he'd been a little bit forgotten?

A COHEN: Yeah (laughter). I feel like my father probably felt like his whole life was characterized by that description, that he'd been forgotten - forgotten by the angels, forgotten by the, you know, cupid, forgotten by - I know that he was not satisfied. He was a seeker, and he wasn't satisfied with either the position that he had for the most part in society. He wasn't happy with society itself. That deepened the conflict.

He wasn't satisfied with the people he had chosen to be around him. He wasn't satisfied with his role as a father. He wasn't satisfied with his role as a lover. And through this layer upon layer of dissatisfaction, he somehow mustered an incredible buoyancy and ability to be one of the most delightful people anyone ever came across. And it wasn't with any sense of bitterness or judgment.

I think he just felt like he had this shabby little life. And his only solace was the work itself. And that's what made the end of his life that more astonishing and surprising and delicious - you know, this unexpected ability to fill, you know, 20,000 seats in any major city in the world, these reviews from people that were like, you know, this - it was like they were reviewing the Sistine Chapel itself. It was accompanied by commercial success and accolades.

And to see him take his hat off, you know, and thank the jubilant audiences one after the other was to see a man who was genuinely surprised and delighted by the reception that he thought he was never going to get in life.

GROSS: When I saw him probably in the late 2000s - like 2009 maybe, I can't remember what year it was - was kind of like being in a church or a synagogue. There was this (laughter) sense of, like, the devotion of his fans to him and his devotion to the music and to things larger. And he ended it with what struck me as a benediction. And I forget exactly what he said. But, you know, to those of you who are going home, you know, to your families, enjoy your families. And to those of you who live alone, enjoy your solitude.

And I thought, like, people don't say that. That's such a beautiful thing to say. It's such a lovely way of sending people home and sending home people who are going home alone. Enjoy your solitude.

A COHEN: Yeah. May these songs find you in your solitude. May the blessings...

GROSS: Yeah, that's what - that was it.

A COHEN: Actually, the exact quote is, "may the blessings find you in your solitude."

GROSS: I thought that was just beautiful.

A COHEN: Well, this is a man who, as he says and I think you've just played it - you know, although he had a reputation as a ladies' man, you know, he was - he had to grit his teeth at the 10,000 nights he spent alone. He understood something about solitude.

BIANCULLI: Adam Cohen, the son of Leonard Cohen, speaking to Terry Gross last year. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's interview from last year with singer-songwriter Adam Cohen, the son of singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen. A new Leonard Cohen album, "Thanks For The Dance," comes out today.

GROSS: So you were born in 1972. Some of your father's most famous songs were already written and recorded by the time you were born - "Suzanne," "So Long, Marianne," "Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye," "Bird On The Wire," "Chelsea Hotel," "Who By Fire." So did you hear them a...

A COHEN: Are you saying he didn't need me?


GROSS: So did you hear them a lot when you were growing up? I mean, so, like, when I was growing up, I thought about songs and singers. But I didn't think about songwriters, you know. I just thought about, like, what's the song and who's singing it? But you were - your father was a songwriter. So you must have had an awareness that songwriting was a craft. It's something people actually did. And you must've been - like, grown up with these songs. I don't know if he played them around the house. I don't know if you even heard them when you were young.

A COHEN: Of course I heard them. Yeah, no, I was a 5-year-old on the side of stages watching them being performed and...

GROSS: Oh, of course. Right.

A COHEN: ...Looking out into the - looking at the faces of audiences, you know, in different times and places. And I was a deep, deep admirer of the melodies of - at first, you know, as a child, just the melodies - the generosity of the melodies. And then as I grew older, there was the complexities and the beautiful marshaling of language. And then you grow older, and then you sort of see - I remember I myself, you know, was making a record at the time. And I'd scrapped it.

And I asked my father for counsel. I said, Dad, you know, meet me. I really got to talk to you. I got to pick your brain. And we were sitting on the corner of Wilshire and La Brea. And I confessed to him that I was going to scrap this entire record and was expecting him to put his hand on my shoulder and say, like, that's my boy - you know, altruistic values. Don't ever stop, continue refining.

But instead, he turned to me and said, man, you're going to scrap your record? That's an amateur move. I said, amateur move? He says, yeah, it's not about how you feel about the record. It's how the songs make them feel.

And at that moment, I realized that the love I had always had for his material wasn't just about their construction, but it was also about their intentionality. He was holding up this baton that he had been given by the love he had for the people who came before him. And he was holding it up, and something about the canon of his work that - has always maintained that baton off the ground.

GROSS: How old were you when your parents separated?

A COHEN: Five, 6 - I don't remember.

GROSS: So how much did you get to see your father after that?

A COHEN: I'm in a relationship now, and the imperfection of a union between two people has been demonstrated to me in (laughter) vivid colors and dimensions. And the fact that my father was able to stay in his children's life despite those complications and then some was remarkable - is remarkable to me.

My mother moved my sister and I to across the world many occasions, not just to get away from him - in fact, not to get away from him at all but just to follow our own whims. And my father, you know, would often even park a caravan at the end of a dirt road just to be near us. He's always been part of our lives. He'd always - he always maintained a role in our lives despite my parents' separation.

GROSS: So a caravan is like a mobile home?

A COHEN: Oh, yeah. The - like, what do you call those? Like a Jetstream kind of thing.


A COHEN: Yeah. I remember my mother moved my sister and I all the way to the south of France where we lived - and there was a long dirt road. And he bought one of these sort of caravan Jetstream type things. And he put it at the T where the road met the dirt road. And he just lived there (laughter). And my mother didn't want him on the property. So, you know, every day after school, the bus would drop us off. And we'd see dad in his caravan. And so I remember...

GROSS: How long did he do that for?

A COHEN: Well, he did that and variations of that throughout my entire life. And, you know, as I say, the intent to be part of his children's life - the deliberateness with which he contorted his own life and schedule to make sure that he was present in our lives was a feat.

GROSS: There's something really terrible that happened to him that in its own way is maybe responsible for the revival of his career and for his reconnection to people around the world. And that's - he had an accountant or a business manager who, like, drained your father's savings and sold the publishing rights to your father's song. That's kind of like stealing his soul to sell all the publishing rights to his songs. I mean, that just seems like such a transgression. And like, I think it's your sister who discovered that it happened. Like, your father didn't even know.

A COHEN: Yeah. You know, as he often joked, it is hilarious that he thought he could resolve his economic woes with song and poetry and incredible that - (laughter) with the canon of his work and with his devotion to blackening pages in melody that he built the life he built for himself. And when he experienced this episode that you're referring to, it actually did compel him back out of retirement, back onto the road. And that is what was part of what I referred to as the most sort of joyous and unexpected episode of his life, which was to discover that all this time, absence had made the heart grow fonder. Who knew?

He had always benefited from this kind of iconic status, you know? People like Kurt Cobain and others, you know, would quote him. And - but it didn't result in the kind of mass appeal. And lo and behold, from this economic crisis arose this most unexpected and festive of periods in his life.

I want to say festive. I mean, it was incredible to see the amount of universities that suddenly started teaching his works, studying his works, or even a whole rabbinical clan adopting his lyrics as liturgy. Madison Square Garden and The O2 - you know, 20,000 seaters suddenly being filled. They'd never sold more than 6,000 tickets. So thank goodness for that economic crisis.

GROSS: So did he ever get the song rights back? Because...


GROSS: ...It seem it - really?

A COHEN: Yeah. No, those are gone.

GROSS: Adam Cohen, I really appreciate you doing this. I know you're not very comfortable talking about your father or even talking about yourself in this kind of setting. So thank you again so much.

A COHEN: Thank you so much - most gracious and patient of you. Thank you.

BIANCULLI: Adam Cohen, the son of singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, speaking to Terry Gross last year. A book collection of Leonard Cohen's formerly unpublished writings and drawings, titled "The Flame," is now out in paperback. And a new posthumous Leonard Cohen album is released today called "Thanks For The Dance." Coming up, film critic Justin Chang reviews "A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood," the new movie starring Tom Hanks as children's TV host Fred Rogers. This is FRESH AIR.


This is FRESH AIR. In 1998, the journalist Tom Junod wrote a celebrated Esquire Magazine profile of Fred Rogers, the beloved children's television personality better known as Mister Rogers. The story of their encounter and subsequent friendship is the inspiration for the new film called "A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood" starring Tom Hanks as Mister Rogers. It's directed by Marielle Heller, the filmmaker behind last year's "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" Film critic Justin Chang has this review.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: I must confess that I approached "A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood" with some trepidation? After last year's wonderful documentary "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" I wasn't sure we needed the Hollywood version of Mister Rogers, especially a Mister Rogers played by Tom Hanks. Something about the idea of casting one of our most beloved movie actors as one of our most beloved TV personalities just sounded a little too sanctimonious on paper.

I shouldn't have worried. "A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood" may be an unapologetically therapeutic story about a man who has a life-changing encounter with Mister Rogers. But the director, Marielle Heller, shrewdly anticipates your every eye roll. And she and the screenwriters, Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, are deft at using humor and even a little snark to disarm our worst expectations.

They even encourage us to identify on some level with the protagonist, Lloyd Vogel, a cynical New York based journalist played by the excellent Welsh actor Matthew Rhys. Lloyd has been tasked with profiling Fred Rogers for Esquire, an unusual assignment that he approaches with great reluctance and even resentment. It's his natural instinct to try and take Mister Rogers down a few notches to shine the cold, hard light of reality on a man who surely couldn't be as saintly as he appears.

Lloyd has his reasons for distrusting paternal authority figures. He's long been estranged from his father, Jerry, who abandoned him years ago when he was just a child. Lloyd's ongoing anger toward his dad threatens to drive a wedge between him and his loving wife, played by Susan Kelechi Watson, with whom he has a newborn son of his own.

Meanwhile, Jerry, played by an aggressively remorseful Chris Cooper, wants to be part of Lloyd's life again. But Lloyd isn't having any of it, and even gets in a fistfight with his dad at a family wedding. And so when Lloyd goes to interview Mister Rogers at his Pittsburgh TV studio, he shows up with an ugly gash on his face, which he chalks up to a baseball injury.

It takes some time for the interview to get started. There's a child visiting the set, and Mister Rogers - or Fred, as everyone calls him - is not one to be rushed. Soon he will turn his unhurried, undivided attention onto Lloyd, who finds their interview both fascinating and infuriating. Whenever Lloyd asks a pointed question, Fred will often sidestep it and ask an equally pointed question in return.


MATTHEW RHYS: (As Lloyd Vogel) This piece will be for an issue about heroes. Do you consider yourself a hero?

TOM HANKS: (As Fred Rogers) I don't think of myself as a hero, no, not at all.

RHYS: (As Lloyd Vogel) What about Mister Rogers, is he a hero?

HANKS: (As Fred Rogers) I don't understand the question.

RHYS: (As Lloyd Vogel) Well, there's you, Fred, and then there's the character you play, Mister Rogers.

HANKS: (As Mister Rogers) You said it was a play at the plate. Is that what happened to you?

RHYS: (As Lloyd Vogel) I'm here to interview you, Mister Rogers.

HANKS: (As Mister Rogers) Well, that is what we're doing, isn't it?

CHANG: Lloyd is a stand-in for the journalist Tom Junod, who profiled Rogers for Esquire in 1998. The two remained close until Roger's death in 2003. While Junod has said that the movie captures the essence of their friendship, much of the story, including the specifics of the father-son conflict, was invented for the script.

This fabrication matters less than you might think. Lloyd may be a fictional construct, but the movie wholly empathizes with his pain and validates his emotions. With enormous patience and understanding, Fred gets Lloyd to talk about his long-buried feelings and nudges him in the direction of forgiveness.

This may sound unbearably sentimental, but I never felt manipulated by "A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood," mainly because the movie is so transparent about what it's doing. It seems to be saying, here was an extraordinary human being who simply by offering the gift of his time and attention couldn't help but profoundly affect the lives of those he met.

Like last year's "Can You Ever Forgive Me," "A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood" confirms the remarkable talent of Marielle Heller, a director who can cast a spell with the lightest of touches. She draws us in by evoking the no-frills visual grammar of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" itself. She shoots the movie in a fuzzy, washed-out palette that captures the look of old public television. And she uses the show's famous miniature neighborhood in visual transitions between the scenes.

But her strongest element is Hanks. We know we're in good hands from the opening scene when the actor nails the famous introduction to "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" - the song, the red cardigan, the change of shoes. But his performance goes beyond mimicry. With every twinkling smile and every calmly drawn-out sentence, you can feel Hanks slowing down the movie's rhythms and encouraging us to pay close attention.

I don't say this lightly, but I walked into this movie feeling skeptical at best, and left feeling as if I'd had an encounter with Mister Rogers himself - not in the flesh, of course, but in the all-too-rare sense of having been told a story that embodies the force of his humanity and the tenderness of his spirit.

BIANCULLI: Justin Chang is a film critic for The LA Times. On Monday's show, college in a maximum security prison. We'll talk with filmmaker Lynn Novick and two graduates of the College Behind Bars Program. The PBS documentary series "College Behind Bars" tells the moving story of prisoners taking rigorous courses and earning degrees while serving their time. Hope you can join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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