Leonard Cohen's Folk Ballads Defined The Great 'McCabe & Mrs. Miller'

It's impossible to separate the movie from the late singer's contributions.
Michael Ochs Archives via Getty Images

Leonard Cohen’s oft-covered “Hallelujah” is such a soundtrack staple that it’s become a cliché. Used to accentuate wistful emotions in movies and TV shows as varied as “Basquiat,” “Shrek,” “The West Wing,” “The O.C.,” “Cold Case” and “Watchmen,” the 1984 ballad will surely be remembered as Cohen’s signature contribution to popular culture, even though it saw little fanfare when first released.

Cohen, who died Monday at age 82, gave Hollywood far more than “Hallelujah.” His greatest cinematic achievements are the songs used in 1971’s “McCabe & Mrs. Miller.” Robert Altman’s classic is a perfect emblem of its decade, considered a banner period for filmmaking, when Hollywood mended the crumbled studio system by leaving directors to their own creative devices. That auteurism contributed to Altman’s remarkable career, of which “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” is arguably the highlight. Without Cohen’s songs to guide it, the film wouldn’t be what it is.

A revisionist Western that gracefully twists the genre’s conventions, “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” opens with the sounds of Cohen’s “The Stranger Song.” “I told you when I came I was a stranger,” the folk singer repeats, his words scoring our hero’s entrance. The year is 1902. Warren Beatty plays John Quincy McCabe, a storied gambler who stumbles upon a musty mining town and strikes a business deal with a cockney brothel matriarch named Constance Miller (Julie Christie). Quickly winning the favor of the townsfolk, who are enchanted by her business acumen and his reputation as a gunfighter, the titular pair are the embodiment of a free market in a town where nothing ever happens ― until corporate tyrants threaten their lives.

As this folksy satire transitions to one of the most serene manhunts committed to film, Cohen’s dulcet warble is its constant. We hear no other music throughout, only the sounds of nature and quotidian activity.

Once McCabe and Mrs. Miller have brought viable business to this Northwestern hamlet, life moves forward with relative ease. Cohen’s “Sisters of Mercy” plays as Altman’s camera surveys the women who work in the brothel ― women who care for their clients and one another and the land they occupy. “And they brought me their comfort and later they brought me this song / Oh, I hope you run into them, you who’ve been traveling so long,” Cohen sings. Coupled with shots of the ladies enjoying the new bathhouse being constructed, “Sisters of Mercy” makes their lives seem nothing short of blissful. For a movie filled with gray skies and inclement weather, the scene is one of the film’s sunniest. It’s passive and simple and subtly beautiful.

Speaking of inclement weather, a third Cohen song arrives much later, in the film’s final few minutes, when heavy snow and greedy capitalism have enveloped the town. McCabe has been gunned down by corporate assassins, and Mrs. Miller has given into an opium addiction that renders her emotionally hollow. Cohen’s “Winter Lady” scores their fate, becoming a death elegy that turns their tenure in the town into a blessed chapter laid to rest. The final words we hear are Cohen’s: “Traveling lady, stay awhile / Until the night is over / I’m just a station on your way / I know I’m not your lover.”

In “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” moments come and go. Days fold into one another, their denizens moving in and out of dank rooms, unwittingly desperate to brush up against more prosperous cultural horizons. This frontier tale does not culminate in triumph. Some of McCabe and Mrs. Miller’s advancements will stick; others will inevitably fade into history. What remains, hopefully, is the folksiness of their community, as underscored in Cohen’s lonely melodies.

“The Stranger Song,” “Sisters of Mercy” and “Winter Lady” hail from Cohen’s 1967 debut album, “Songs of Leonard Cohen.” Altman was a huge fan, floored when he called up the singer and was able to secure inexpensive rights to the songs, which might as well have been written for the movie. When Altman first showed Cohen a print of the film, Cohen said he didn’t much like it. The director was crushed. Cohen later re-watched it and phoned Altman to apologize. “I don’t know what was wrong with me,” he said, calling the movie “absolutely fantastic.”

Critics have fawned over it, and today “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” is considered one of American cinema’s finest achievements. No major studio ― e.g. Warner Bros., which released the project ― would dare make something so poetic nowadays. The closest a recent soundtrack has come to emulating Cohen’s tone is 2013’s “Inside Llewyn Davis,” but that uses folk music because it’s about a folk singer. We honor Cohen’s work not because it fostered a great movie’s plot, but because it enshrined it. It bettered it. It made a downtrodden story romantic. It evoked a mood and ushered along a tone poem. It, like Cohen himself for so many years, spoke to us.

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