Film Review: Leonard Cohen Live at the Isle of Wight 1970

Though the year has just started, <i>Leonard Cohen Live at the Isle of Wight 1970</i> may well turn out to be one of the best films of 2010.

It doesn’t say much for the current state of cinema that one of the year’s highlights was filmed 40 years ago off England’s southern coastline, but in many ways Leonard Cohen Live at the Isle of Wight 1970 feels both immediate and timeless. For those who only know Cohen as his deeper-voiced older self, Murray Lerner’s look back will be revelatory.

Apart from Cohen fans, baby boomers and anyone turned on by the recent Woodstock anniversary celebrations should make Leonard Cohen at least a minor success. While some might wait for the DVD (and accompanying CD), wiser viewers will want to catch the film in a theatre, to more fully appreciate the original concert experience.

Director Lerner has been doling out parts of the Isle of Wight concert over a period of years in a series including Message to Love (1995), Wild Blue Angel (2002), which focuses on Jimi Hendrix, and The Who Live at the Isle of Wight Festival 1970 (2004).

Leonard Cohen is less comprehensive than Message to Love and less spirited than Wild Blue Angel, but it turns out to be the most memorable of the Lerner films. As the story is told via newly shot interviews with fellow Wight performers Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Kris Kristofferson and Cohen band-mate Bob Johnston, a restless crowd of 600,000 began rioting following Hendrix’s electrifying set and it took Cohen, the Canadian-born folksinger, to quiet down the mob. With his stoic demeanor but haunting group of songs, he immediately turned a violent crowd into a mesmerized audience.

Most of Leonard Cohen presents the concert footage itself, with the performer singing in either medium long shot or close-up. The occasional shots of the dirty, disheveled audience before Cohen arrives on stage convey the enormity of the place, but since Cohen started his set after two a.m., the pitch-black surroundings confer an expressionistic look to an already dark and dangerous atmosphere.

It is hard not to compare the Leonard Cohen of 1970 to his contemporary, Bob Dylan, both in term of their curly-haired appearance and stripped-down style of storytelling. But it is the lesser-known Cohen who comes off as the more authentic, beginning with his Jewish heritage. (Cohen kept his birth name while Dylan changed his from Robert Allen Zimmerman.)  More significantly, there’s the music: Cohen’s songs are far less catchy but considerably more moving (and frankly more pleasing to the ear). The highlights of this particular concert are the two beautifully painful tributes to women, “Suzanne” and “Seems So Long Ago, Nancy” (about a suicide victim). Yet, in his own more personal way, Cohen remains just as politically valid as Dylan minus the pretensions. Even Cohen’s patter between songs (“They’ve surrounded the island”) reveals a wicked, deadpan sense of humor missing from the more earnest Dylan.

The only real flaw of the film is the lack of exposition—Joan Baez briefly mentions Hendrix, but the importance of Cohen following the more famous rock star on stage is lost in the narrow focus of the film. (Likewise, the sociopolitical backdrop of the Isle of Wight festival is assumed, perhaps because it had been previously covered by Lerner.)
Ostensibly, the absence of Cohen as one of the interviewees seems like another flaw, but Cohen’s current-day presence might have been too indulgent or imposing. Given his cult status, it is just as well he didn’t participate in front of the camera, leaving his work to eloquently speak (and sing) for itself.