'Omega': Film Review

OMEGA - Enrique Morente and Leonard Cohen - H 2016
Courtesy of Sacromonte Films
Good stories about great music.

This doc is a 20-year-later record of 1990’s groundbreaking musical collaboration, which daringly fused the arts of flamenco singer Enrique Morente with those of a Spanish rock group, the poet Federico Garcia Lorca and Leonard Cohen.

It was Spain’s equivalent of Bob Dylan’s 1966 “Judas” moment in London, when he turned electric in front of an angry live crowd. In 1996 at a concert in Madrid, the flamenco singer Enrique Morente ended a typical set, the curtains opened and from behind them emerged the rock band Lagartija Nick. To quote one of the interviewees of Omega, this new, radical mix of flamenco and rock — fusing traditional flamenco motifs with songs and lyrics by Leonard Cohen and poems by the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca — was a "hurricane of decibels." It split Morente’s fans down the middle; 20 years on, die-hard purists still complain that it's unworthy of Morente and of flamenco.

Morente, who died in 2010, and now Cohen are sadly no longer with us, making the polished and intriguing Omega a timely, stylishly told testimony of their coming together to make the cult album of the same name. International fans of flamenco (and of Morente, which is really the same thing) will be intrigued, while given Cohen’s recent death, the film also represents an unplanned secondary homage to the restless, international spirit of the poet and songwriter.

Early interviews with the young singer Morente suggest that he’s always going to be about breaking musical molds. The film charts the slow evolution of the Omega project, with Morente contacting Cohen via Cohen’s Spanish translator and friend (Alberto Manzano) to tell the songwriter that he could hear flamenco structures in Cohen’s music, and Cohen in turn switching Morente onto the poetry of Lorca: The resulting album essentially features songs by Morente and Cohen with lyrics by Cohen and Lorca, and includes striking, stirring and sometimes unforgettable translated versions of such Cohen classics as 'Hallelujah," "Tonight We Take Manhattan" and "Take this Waltz."

The film captures well the inevitable tensions in trying to fuse so many different musical (and actual) languages, with lots of very different musos trapped together in 1995 in a tiny rehearsal room, struggling to make themselves understood as they work toward the concert that will open the Omega saga.

The members of Lagartija Nick, looking fairly well-preserved considering the well-documented excesses of the times, provide the memories and the anecdotes (a combination of the funny and the forgettable), along with members of the Morente clan, including his wife Aurora and daughters Estrella and Solea. The most touching scene, staged perhaps a little too obviously, has the three women watching Morente perform his version of Cohen’s "Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye": Estrella, aware of the cameras, quickly pops on her sunglasses to hide the tears.

Other sociological and musicological perspectives are briefly delivered, perhaps with the aim of providing context for international audiences. What isn't forthcoming is any whiff of accidentally revealed truth, scandal or real intimacy: Omega is very much the officially sanctioned version, the price perhaps to be paid for having so many Morente family interviewees.

It’s the concert footage of live performances that counts for most, footage featuring music that is probably quite unlike anything you’ve heard before, and which, with its combination of flamenco-rooted Cohen melodies, passion, delicacy and gut-churning power, is still able to divide listeners right down the middle. Later scenes focus on other Morente collaborations with Sonic Youth, who just didn’t seem to get it (Kim Gordon sounds non-too-impressed with the result; Lee Ranaldo is still full of enthusiasm) and Pat Metheny. The results in each case sound like a collaboration too far.

The attitude of the impish-faced Morente himself to all this is nicely expressed in the wry tone of his words, which contrast so strongly with the unleashed passions of his performances: “Sometimes you have to annoy people a little sometimes,” the singer says, “otherwise they’ll just end up annoying you.” It is ironic testament to its enduring power that Omega, 20 years on, is still annoying some.

Production companies: Sacromonte Films, Telecinco Cinema y Universal Music Spain
Cast: Enrique Morente, Aurora Carbonell, Estrella Morente, Antonio Arias, Eric Jimenez, Tomatito
Directors: Jose Sanchez-Montes, Gervasio Iglesias
Screenwriter: Jose Sanchez-Montes
Producers: Ghislain Barrois, Gervasio Iglesias
Executive producers: Alvaro Agustina, Cristobal Garcia, Javier Pouso, David Gonzalez
Director of photography: Juanma Carmona
Editors: Mercedes Cantero, Pablo Rojo
Composers: Enrique Morente, Leonard Cohen
Sales: Telecinco Cinema

No rating, 87 minutes