Released this week on DVD, Leonard Cohen: Live At The Isle of Wight 1970 chronicles the singer/songwriter’s landmark set at the five-day music festival in England. Directed by Academy Award winning filmmaker Murray Lerner—whose credits include Message To Love: The Isle of Wight Festival 1970, The Other Side of The Mirror: Bob Dylan At Newport and Amazing Journey: The Story of The Who—the documentary renders Cohen as the infamous event’s saving grace.
Despite an unprecedented audience of 600,000 and a roster of high-profile acts from The Who and Joni Mitchell to Sly & The Family Stone and Jimi Hendrix, the massive happening quickly took on an iniquitous subtext. Tension between many in the crowd and the concert organizers (who hadn’t prepared for such staggering attendance) was inevitably directed toward the artists, resulting in a climate of random disruptions and resentment.
It’s within this context that Lerner frames Cohen’s performance, interspersing it with present commentary by other artists, including Joan Baez and Kris Kristofferson, who were also on the bill.
Murray Lerner recently spoke to Donald Gibson of Blogcritics Magazine about his latest film as well as his thoughts on Dylan and the essential power of music.
There are a lot of sustained close-ups on Cohen’s face, which seem to reflect the way the audience was paying attention to him.
Excellent point. I think he made them feel very intimate with him. And I wanted to show that. He was the only one that I can think of, out of all the performers, who actually expressed sympathy and consensus with the audience’s ideals and feelings. [When] he in a sense said, “We’re a nation, but we’re weak. We need to get stronger,” he was telling the audience that he was on their side ideologically.
He was empathetic.
Yeah. Therefore, I think that meant a lot. A lot of the performers were upset with the audience—and rightly so because of the conditions… As Joni [Mitchell] was saying, “Please give me some [respect].” In other words, be aware of my feelings. She wasn’t saying, “I’m aware of your feelings.”
She was basically saying I need you to quiet down so I can do my thing.
Right—“I’m an artist and this is my life.” She wasn’t saying, “Well, you’re in a bad position; I understand why you’re doing this.” But [Cohen] was. He wasn’t being clever; I think that’s just what he really felt… He was one with the audience almost instantly… Ordinarily a quiet, acoustic set wasn’t their thing… The thing is, though, he was there for them. [Also], T.S. Eliot said, “[Genuine] poetry can communicate before it is understood.” And as Joan Baez said [in the commentary], she didn’t understand a lot of it, but it worked. That’s true. Because of that, they were really listening.