A small, slightly shabby figure stands by the side of a stage. He’s an idiosyncratically handsome fellow but looks tired, nervous, and a bit unsure of what’s about to happen. He needs a shave, his clothes are rumpled, and a mop of curly hair that could use the attention of a brush sits on top of his head. A few moments later, he carefully walks to center stage with a small group of musicians, picks up a guitar, and does something extraordinary -- he holds a crowd of over half a million people in the palm of his hand for little more than an hour simply with the power of his voice, his words, and his melodies, all while barely moving from one spot.
Leonard Cohen has been reminding audiences of his subtle genius as a performer in recent years, having set out on an international concert tour in 2008 that has been selling out venues around the globe and reawakening interest in one of the world’s greatest living songwriters. But Cohen’s debut album was not quite two years old when he was booked to play the Isle of Wight music festival in the summer of 1970, and it was past 2 a.m. on the fifth and final day of the festival when he went on-stage with “the Army” (as he called his band) to perform for an audience that had been openly hostile to many of the acts over the course of a long weekend. The organizers of the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival, held on a small island off the southern coast of England, had been expecting as many as 200,000 music fans to attend, but close to 600,000 showed up. Among them were a large group of anarchists and political activists angry at what they saw as commercial co-opting of the counterculture by the promoters (even though tickets for the full five days cost only three pounds), especially when they saw the large corrugated metal fences that had been set up to keep out folks without tickets. Angry protests took place outside the fences and eventually the crowd began trying to tear them down, and inside the venue listeners were nearly as bitter as those outside; by the time Jimi Hendrix finished his set several hours before Cohen went on, someone succeeded in briefly setting the stage canopy on fire.
Filmmaker Murray Lerner, who had a background in films about music, was hired to document the festival, and nearly 40 years after the fact he’s fashioned his footage of Cohen’s set into a short feature, simply called Leonard Cohen: Live at the Isle of Wight 1970. It’s likely that the current swell of interest in Cohen and his music is what prompted Lerner to pull this material from the vault, but regardless of his motivations the film is an absorbing, rewarding experience for anyone with an interest in Cohen’s music. Lerner includes brief interviews with other artists who performed at the festival (Kris Kristofferson and Joan Baez) and some of Cohen’s collaborators (singer and close friend Judy Collins and Bob Johnston, who produced several of Cohen’s albums and played keyboards for the Isle of Wight date), and they provide valuable background and context for Cohen’s performance. Much of the haphazard nature of the evening is summed up by the fact that, while Cohen was originally scheduled to go on early in the afternoon, by the time he was summoned to the stage he was fast asleep in his dressing room, and it’s not hard to see the grogginess on his face as he begins his set.
But despite the size and uncertain temperament of the crowd, Cohen’s set is most striking in its intimacy; the film doesn’t focus on the grand scale of event but on the details of his performance, with the camera often capturing Cohen’s face in long, unblinking close-ups. One song from the Isle of Wight recordings, “Sing Another Song, Boys,” was used on Cohen’s 1971 album Songs of Love and Hate, and in that context it sounds like a performance taped in a nightclub where the musicians are interacting closely with the spectators. Watching it performed here, it seems as if Cohen, instead of trying to expand his performing style to encompass the biggest audience of his life, has -- by force of creative will and strength of personality -- shrunk the space to suit his music, and the languid but emotionally intense nature of the material ultimately suits the mood of the day. Poetic yet honest, his tales of a shattered emotional landscape in which beauty (both physical and spiritual) does battle with our worst instincts are fascinating both in their literate power and in the shaky but emphatic interplay between Cohen and his accompanists, and they sound all too appropriate as the soundtrack to this evening, in which the last light of the optimism of the 1960s was slipping below the horizon.
Leonard Cohen: Live at the Isle of Wight 1970 runs just over an hour, and those fans who witnessed Cohen’s recent tour (in which the shows often lasted close to three hours) might be surprised by the small scale of his festival set, especially when pondering the size of the crowd who saw it as it happened. But the younger man with the less ragged voice who strolled out to meet a fair-sized city waiting to hear his music on a tense August night had clearly learned how to make his songs work on-stage, and it’s rare to see music this spare work its magic as well as it does in this film. Lerner’s documentary gives us a look into one memorable night in the life of a singular poet and musician, and if it doesn’t tell us much about the man, it speaks eloquently about the artist and his considerable gifts.
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- Released: 2009
- Review: A small, slightly shabby figure stands by the side of a stage. He’s an idiosyncratically handsome fellow but looks tired, nervous, and a bit unsure of what’s about to happen. He needs a shave, his clothes are rumpled, and a mop of curly hair that could use… (more)