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A scene from LEONARD COHEN LIVE AT THE ISLE OF WIGHT 1970 (Photo: Sony Music Entertainment/Legacy Recordings)

Produced & Directed by Murray Lerner
Released by Sony Music Entertainment/Legacy Recordings
USA. 64 min. Not Rated
Leonard Cohen, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Kris Kristofferson & Bob Johnston 

Leonard Cohen Live at the Isle of Wight 1970 is the sixth in director Murray Lerner’s festival series. He has been carefully putting into perspective his footage of legendary performances from that highly-charged, post Woodstock, post-Altamont music festival. His Message to Love: The Isle of Wight Festival (1997) provided the overall context of an anarchic audience clashing with overwhelmed organizers, and an overview of the dozens of performing rock ‘n’ roll hall of famers. (Over the years, the music has outlived the sociological significance of the event, with Cohen only briefly seen.) In addition to being at the right place with a camera at an exciting time in rock history, Lerner has carefully edited and culled the highlights of extraordinary artists in their prime, including the Who, Miles Davis, and Jimi Hendrix.

Cohen’s selections, however, showcase his power as a tousled, youthful troubadour and storyteller, before he became a literary and songwriting icon with a somewhat eccentric personal life. He came out on stage early in the morning before 600,000 raucous music fans and proceeded to performed songs from his first two released albums and a few previews of his third. His poetic music hath charms to soothe the savage breasts. Where earlier performers that evening were interrupted by fires, he urged people to light matches so that he could see the audience.

Joan Baez is seen then and now discussing the aggression at the festival. (Cohen dedicates his performance of “The Partisan” to her work in promoting nonviolence.) Kris Kristofferson is seen then with his disrupted performance and now today, admiring how Cohen won over the crowd in a way he couldn’t. Bob Johnston, Cohen’s manager and part of his back-up band, adds some backstage details, and Judy Collins briefly repeats her oft-told tale of being present at the birth of “Suzanne.” But mostly they all dissolve into accolades.

So it is surprising just how quiet Cohen’s acoustic performance is, with only one up-tempo number, the Buddy Holly-esque “Tonight Will Be Fine.” (The audio of Cohen’s complete set is on the accompanying CD.) While Lian Lunson’s Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man was a biography and a tribute to his songwriting, this film emphasizes how Cohen connects with his audience.

This documentary doesn’t capture definitive performances of these early songs or a key point in the history of popular music as Lerner did in The Other Side of the Mirror: Bob Dylan Live at the Newport Folk Festival, but fans of Leonard Cohen and those interested in seeing a 1970 moment forever preserved will be appreciative. Nora Lee Mandel
January 22, 2010



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