Leonard Cohen Songs Key In Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller

Singers Of Mercy: How McCabe & Mrs Miller Changed The Western Soundtrack by Charlie Brigden (The Quietus: April 29th, 2018) is an insightful essay on Altman’s use of Leonard Cohen’s music in his landmark movie. An excerpt follows but the full article, available at the link, is recommended reading:

‘Sisters of Mercy’ introduces McCabe’s prostitutes and notably the male reactions, the gawping construction workers and McCabe’s own shyster approach to it all that comes to a head when Alma stabs one of the punters. Cohen’s music just lingers as it’s clear McCabe is in over his head, and it’s no coincidence that this immediately precedes the arrival of Mrs Miller. Mrs Miller’s theme is ‘Winter Lady’, and we first hear it echoed in her smoky yellow room, post-opium session, but it’s used beautifully when she stands outside in the falling snow, scared at the inevitable fate of her and McCabe, Cohen uttering “you chose your journey long before you came across this highway”.

More McCabe & Mrs. Miller

Other posts about Leonard Cohen’s music in McCabe & Mrs. Miller and video clips of Cohen’s music in that film at 

Recommended Reading: Leonard Cohen And McCabe & Mrs. Miller

The Stranger Song: Leonard Cohen and McCabe & Mrs. Miller

The three Cohen songs, “The Stranger Song,” “Sisters of Mercy,” and Winter Lady,” work in perfect harmony with the film and allow Cohen to play the part of an invisible, informal narrator, filling in the blanks left by the naturalistic, show-don’t-tell, style of the film. As nothing much is offered by the film’s dialogue in the way of back-stories, motivations and desires, it is left to Cohen and his songs. And as McCabe and Mrs. Miller swoon across with the film’s patient, meditative narrative, a larger picture emerges, like pieces of a puzzle falling into place.

The above excerpt is from The Stranger Song: Leonard Cohen and McCabe & Mrs. Miller by C Depasquale. Aquarium Drunkard: Nov 5, 2013. Complete article available at link.

While the significance of Cohen’s music for Altman’s 1971 film, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, is an often-addressed cinematic topic, this exposition is especially well written and insightful. Highly recommended.

Note: Originally posted Dec 11, 2013 at DrHGuy.com, a predecessor of Cohencentric

Highly Recommended Reading: Stranger Songs: The Music of Leonard Cohen in McCabe & Mrs. Miller By Robert Christgau

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Over the years, at least a half-dozen posts on the topic of the music of Leonard Cohen in McCabe & Mrs. Miller have appeared at Cohencentric and its predecessors.1 Even if you’ve read all the reviews referenced in those entries, there is still more to learn from Stranger Songs: The Music of Leonard Cohen in McCabe & Mrs. Miller by Robert Christgau (Criterion: Oct 5, 2016). The excerpts below indicate Christgau’s grasp of detail and his nuanced, articulate observations.

Before Altman even tried to negotiate permissions, he laid Cohen’s songs over his footage, and the mesh amazed him. “I think the reason they worked was because those lyrics were etched in my subconscious, so when I shot the scenes I fitted them to the songs, as if they were written for them. I put in about ten of them at first—of course, we way overdid it—and then we ended up with the three songs that were finally used, and I thought they were just wonderful.”

The film version of “The Stranger Song” differs from the one Altman had played to death on successive copies of the Canadian singer-songwriter’s late-1967 debut album Songs of Leonard Cohen—produced, as it happens, by another John Simon (rather too schlockily, Cohen always thought). After starting off with the first three verses of the album version, the soundtrack interpolates a long, elegiac, Spanish-tinged guitar solo—amplified acoustic, I think—by David Lindley, for forty years now a go-to multi-instrumentalist but at the time merely a member of the California band Kaleidoscope, who were handpicked by Cohen to play behind him on the record only to be cut off at the pass by Simon the producer. Then the album version returns for two verses, after which it doubles back to the capper of the second verse, with the final three verses saved for a later scene. Thus the mood-setter ends: “That is curling up like smoke above his shoulder/It is curling just like smoke above his shoulder/He was just some Joseph looking for a manger/He was just some Joseph looking for a manger.”

The entire piece can be read at

Stranger Songs: The Music of Leonard Cohen in McCabe & Mrs. Miller

Also see

View Videos: Leonard Cohen’s Music in McCabe & Mrs. Miller

All posts about Leonard Cohen’s music in McCabe & Mrs. Miller can be found at 

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  1. DrHGuy.com & 1HeckOfAGuy.com []

Video: Robert Altman Talks About Leonard Cohen, His Songs & The McCabe & Mrs. Miller Soundtrack

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It has become difficult to find a movie critic who doesn’t acknowledge the impact of Leonard Cohen’s songs on Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller. A representative observation follows:

Watching Altman’s film, it becomes obvious that Cohen’s songs preternaturally fit each film they slide into, as if the words were meant for each scene (even if that same song is used over and over again in different worlds, scenarios, and films).1

In this video, Altman, who died in 2006,  is interviewed ahead of the release of Gosford Park  sometime in the late 1990s on Elvis Mitchell‘s Independent Focus program.

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Along with comments about censorship, recruiting Cher to play in Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, why he was fed up with Hollywood, and more, Altman tells how he came to realize, after filming was completed, that he wanted music from Songs Of Leonard Cohen on the soundtrack of  McCabe & Mrs. Miller, how he tracked down the Canadian singer-songwriter, and why Cohen’s enthusiastic response was key.

Update: See other posts about Leonard Cohen’s music in McCabe & Mrs. Miller and video clips of Cohen’s music in that film at 

Note: The video should begin automatically at the pertinent portion of the program (about 12:14). The material about Leonard Cohen lasts 4-5 minutes. The entire Altman interview, however, is worth watching.

Independent Focus with Robert Altman

Note: Originally posted Jul 29, 2014 at 1HeckOfAGuy.com, a predecessor of Cohencentric
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  1. Your Guide to the Cinematic Life of Musician Leonard Cohen  by Monika Bartyzel. Posted 27 June 2012 at  Movies.com []

Leonard At The Multiplex – The Best Of Leonard Cohen In The Movies

moviecomboRecommended Reading

The Best of Leonard Cohen in the Movies by Michael Glover Smith (whitecitycinema.com: Sept 22, 2014) offers succinct, thoughtful, and insightful summaries of the roles played by Leonard Cohen’s music in five films:

  • “The Stranger Song,” “Sisters of Mercy” and “Winter Lady” in Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971)
  • “Chelsea Hotel #2″ in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980)
  • “Avalanche” in Olivier Assayas’s Cold Water (1994)
  • “I’m Your Man” in Steve James’s Life Itself (2014)
  • “Take This Waltz” in Jean-Luc Godard’s Letter in Motion to Gilles Jacob and Thierry Fremaux (2014)

Originally posted September 24, 2014 at DrHGuy.com, a predecessor of Cohencentric