The Myth of Night Magic
by Nick Mancuso
(August 10, 2020 – Paris, France) I starred in Night Magic. And I feel guilty about it. A marvellously original musical by two geniuses Leonard Cohen and Lewis Furey. Find this lost Canadian film.
I say geniuses because there is no doubt that Leonard Cohen remains one of the great legends in music history, poetry and writing in the latter part of the 20th century, in the period known as the ‘60s. As for Lewis well, take a listen.
Leonard Cohen. A legend. Night Magic. The unknown unsung movie he wrote starring myself Carole Laure, Stephan Audron, Jean Carmet and directed by Lewis Furey making first time at the bat. Cinematography by Philippe Rousselot. Choreography and dancing by the Eddy Toussaint Ballet de Montreal and Frank Augustine of the National Ballet of Canada.
Night Magic reflected a time of mythic figures in cinema and music. Fellini, Kurosawa, Godard, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Jim Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Bob Dylan and from the frontier country of olden Canada, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchel, Neil Young, Gordon Lightfoot and all the other illuminated crazies that infused my generation with the sheer force and hope for a shimmering bright new future. It reflected the echoes of a time that would once and all time end the war to end all wars. And bring about a time of peace and love.
To my mind at least this was the subtext of Night Magic. Yes it was to be peace and love and this unknown little film spoke about it all. Success. Fame. Love. Immortality. We started in Montreal in late summer of 1984. It was a wonderful summer that year in Canada in my favourite city. Night and Magic. The Baby Boomers sing and dance. Just watch us.
The Baby Boomers born from desperation and sprung from parents who had survived the worst event in human history and who were not one of the corpses piled in the millions into mass graves. Who had not been transmuted into hot ashes or evaporated by the nuclear flash of Hiroshima. We children were survivors and children of survivors. We had done something right to be alive and to stay alive and therefore had a purpose a reason to be. A reason to sing and dance.
Leonard Cohen was to be our generation’s voice. He was one of these amazing children born in Montreal in 1934 a Jew who was not hatched in Europe but born into a safe harbour called Canada. His father was a successful merchant, his mother the daughter of a distinguished rabbi.
His teacher was one of Canadas greatest poets, Irving Layton. His guitar teacher was an unknown immigrant Spaniard who taught him some basic chords and then committed suicide. He was an artist through and through. A true Bohemian not a hippy or a yippie and certainly not a yuppie or the X generation.
Leonard learned 3 chords and started strumming along to the song of the Universe. He was a born poet but he wanted to be like David, to play the harp and sing. To God and for God. And my character Michael in Night Magic was modelled on this modern cinematic David. These are the thematics of this little unknown orphan of a film shivering in a snowbound laneway. LOL, as the theologically correct cynical children of today smirk.
Buried and forgotten. The film is in fact a very biblical and religious fairy tale and Carole Laure is not only a perfect angel but she is the Virgin Mary and Suzanne all wrapped up into one brunette Marianne. A modern fairy tale lost and forgotten in a Quebec winter. How odd in the Age of Beyonce and Lady Gaga and Covid to think that a film like this could ever be made.
And yet it was. Another era. In 1964 Leonard was at the perfect age and it was the perfect time. And in the perfect country; Trudeau’s Canada the land of peace. Hope and brilliance was in the air. One day in 1965 my old friend, then young now deceased, Alex Gottlieb announced to me that Leonard was writing songs and singing. At the University of Toronto we knew him only as a poet a protege of Irving Layton. Alex put on the scratchy disk, Side 1 Track 1, Suzanne. What? An awful voice, tuneless like fingernails on a chalkboard…hopeless he was. There was no future for this unknown Canadian poet. Who the hell wants to hear songs about razor blades in the age of the Midnight Rambler?
It’s ironic and fitting that Night Magicc should remain unknown, hidden in the amnesiac snows of Canadian Cultural History. Like all things Canadian, which do not exist until they exist in the outside world, until they are recognized and lauded by the Americans or the British or God-forbid the French…Night Magic disappeared into the night.
I feel guilty about Night Magic and this article is way of an apology, an amends to this little gem of a film. Playing that singing poet.
I feel guilty because I did not go to Cannes when the film was accepted into the Directors Fortnight Category.
I feel guilty for not walking the red carpet with the paparazzi screaming over here! Over here!
I feel guilty because I helped bury the film by not suiting up and showing up. Because you see, this film is a gorgeous work of art musically and visually imaginative and more than deserves to be remembered.
The film is about lost love and love found and lost again, and the egocentric selfishness of the artist and his obsessions with himself and the consequences thereof. In the context of the larger picture, I was perfect for the part at the time. My Salad days though slightly wilted.
When Carole asked me to star in it while shooting Bobby Roth’s Heartbreakers with Peter Coyote I balked. I’m neither a singer nor a dancer and my character Michael was both. Stage fright paralyzed me. “I know you can do it,” she told me. We had worked together on several films going back to the time of John Hirch’s CBC and Gilles Carle. So I took the leap.
Rehearsals began in Montreal a month before principal photography and at that time I learned to sing and dance. Somewhat. I did it all by the numbers with much help by some marvellous people. But my voice was to be dubbed by Lewis. I had done this sort of dubbing thing before when I filmed the rock star in Blame It On the Night, original story by Mick Jagger. I gave a concert for 3 days at the San Diego Sports Arena singing in Ted Neeleys Voice (of Jesus Christ Superstar fame) in a 4 octave range and blowing out my voice in front of 10,000 people. I was on stage with Billy Preston and Mary Clayton. Faking it. Pretending. An actor’s utter madness. But no risk no gain. And here’s the kicker. No gain means no fame and vice versa. Cosmic law in showbiz.
And as Charlton Heston once told me while shooting a film called Motherlode with Kim Basinger directed by Heston and written by his son Fraser, “The trouble with show business is that it’s business that is show and show that is business.” Ya can’t win unless you get the loot. Leonard never cared much about the loot. Night Magic made neither loot nor fame. It cared not a whit. But what language!! Not exactly Rocky Horror!! Almost Elizabethan. Chilling words. Michael loses everything including the Angel that loved him. This film is very much about the fires of experiment. To my mind the fires that electrified the ‘60s. My generation. And Leonard’s even more so born 14 years earlier. The hope of a generation that betrayed itself.
Look around you and listen to the music in this film beat its heart out against the diminishing rattle of a shifting Shumann Wave, the heart sounds of Gaia our Planet. A cacophony of sound. Splintered chords in syncopated 7/8 time. The music of Stockhausen divided by Bertolt Brecht.
And so it began. We had a nothing budget and Robert Lantos, who had produced the movie, ran out of money so we the principal players threw some of our salaries back in.
So why would I not go to Cannes? That was the question. Was it indifference? No I had massive stage fright. Insecurity. I hated the red carpet. How bizarre. Fear is an ugly thing. Fear of success. Fear of the red carpet. Fear of judgment. Leonard had neither fear of success nor failure. He was a free man. But the film did not liberate itself. Was the film afraid?
It was afraid of its own genius. Afraid it would be captured and compared. Afraid of its novelty.
Who was the villain in the story? No one. It was self-betrayal. It was treason, which according to Dante was the greatest of all sins. Night Magic betrayed itself and I, like a good Mephistophelian actor, played along. But for Leonard it was different.
His buddhism and dharma and Sangha kept him balanced.
He bought a small house in the immigrant section of Montreal. To which he returned every now and then to “renew his neurotic affiliations.”
He chopped wood and carried water for his old Roshi on Mt. Baldy in California.
He knew the score.
He was not afraid.
He stayed humble because from the get-go he knew everyone was in trouble.
He didn’t kid nor kill himself much as he sang about it.
He loved women and he loved song and he loved life and he was grateful to his maker the Creator of heaven and earth.
He understood the essential magic of the universe.Theres a crack in things. That’s how the light gets in.
I first met Leonard Cohen in a macrobiotic restaurant in Montreal at midnight. We became instant friends. He asked if he could come and watch us rehearse at the National Theatre School.
Of course. Dancing and sweating every day with the Ballet Eddy Toussaint and Frank Augustine of the National Ballet. He asked if he could bring me water or a coffee. Thank you. He was of service to others at all times. When he offered me the rights to Beautiful Losers, his first novel, I accepted. I was a beautiful loser and did nothing with the rights. The film itself became a beautiful loser.
Leonard was kind and gentle and sweet with an impish sense of humour. There was no anger nor frustration in the man. He had the feeling of a man who knew the jig was up.With him everything seemed possible because there was a smile at the end of the Universe. The cold razor blade reality was not his. It’s something he wrote about. So drink, eat, sing and dance deep into the night for tomorrow you will pay the bill.
Night Magic was originally titled “The Hall,” it was a class act of a film and…a complete flop. I think it was Robert Lantos who gave it the name Night Magic. The Hall, a classic Cohenism, was too prosaic for Mr Lantos.
He went on to become along with Garth Drabinski Canada’s most successful producer and yet when I asked him years later how it felt to have succeeded he told me he felt like a loser.
“Why,” I asked ?
“Because I wanted to produce….you know…films…”
He was of course talking David Korda films, MGM …you know films…Gone With the Wind films, The Red Shoes, Star Wars, The Godfather, Rambo. In a relative world we are all of us…losers…
It’s hard to believe Night Magic was ever made. Before the existence of MTV and musical videos a film totally ignored by Canada written by a Canadian legend. How utterly fitting. It’s a marvellous gem of a movie and I am happy to have been a part of it.
Thank you Leonard Cohen.
Thank you Night Magic.
Also see: The cast & crew of Night Magic.
Also see: Nick Mancuso’s filmography.