Either you're a Leonard Cohen fan or you're not; there seems to be no middle ground. Which pretty much sums up who the audience is for Leonard Cohen Live at the Isle of Wight 1970.
The film by director Murray Lerner is receiving a brief theatrical run in New York beginning today (1/22/10) but is also being released on DVD as part of a package with the CD of the same show.
It's the epitome of narrowcasting: A single performance, fewer than a dozen songs, with little else onscreen beyond Cohen and his band. The camerawork is such that, though Cohen's intricate and insistent guitar-playing is heard, there's nary a shot that truly shows his hands during any of the musical performances. The sound is such that, while Cohen and his band are heard perfectly, the audience sounds like a small, appreciative club full of fans, when there were actually 600,000 people in attendance.
We do get a wee bit of history of the festival itself, which drew a massive crowd and degenerated into a brawling free festival after ticketless hordes burned the fences to gain entry. A couple of witnesses to the mayhem - performers Kris Kristofferson and Joan Baez - are shown in archival footage and contemporary interviews. And there are a few filmed images of the fires and of one festival organizer yelling at the crowd.
Which leaves Cohen himself, performing at 4 a.m. with a band called the Army and which included noted music producer Bob Johnston on keyboards and Charlie Daniels on both bass and fiddle. But, really, it's all Cohen.
Spindly, long-haired and beak-nosed, Cohen was at something of a peak at that point: a poet whose popularity had crept into the mainstream, with songs packed with erotic, provocative imagery, sung in a slightly droney baritone that seemed perfect for the lyrics in the same way Bob Dylan's voice has always seemed just right for his.
There's nothing ostentatious about the performances - just the casual, precise Cohen, enunciating each word clearly, stringing them together in ways that seem both mysterious and surprising. He runs through everything from Bird on a Wire and Suzanne to the relatively upbeat Tonight Will Be Fine, which sounds like a hoedown, compared to the rest.
Cohen never rushes a song or a lyric. Instead, he seems to come at them carefully, bit by bit, as though he were unwrapping a gift in fragile paper that he didn't want to tear. The audience - remember, it's 4 a.m., they're cranky, dirty, rebellious - seems to listen raptly, as thought some sort of benign wizard had suddenly appeared in their midst to mystify them.
Short at a mere 64 minutes, Leonard Cohen Live at the Isle of Wight 1970 is a fascinating document, less of a moment in history than in the development of an artist. Forty years later, he's still performing - and it's still an occasion when he does.
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