Leonard Cohen was asleep in his trailer when he was asked to go onstage. It was around 2am at 1970′s Isle of Wight Festival, a massive, five-day rock festival in its third year. An unexpected 600,000 were in attendance, of which only about 50,000 had paid the entrance fee. The organizers had attempted to build a fence on a nearby hill to block trespassers out, but militant hippies tried to burn it down. By the time Cohen got the call on the final night, multiple riots had erupted and Joni Mitchell and Kris Kristofferson had been booed offstage. A fire was set after Jimi Hendrix’s set around midnight. In Leonard Cohen, Live at the Isle of Wight 1970, Murray Lerner’s documentary of his performance, the Prince of Bummers emerges before the crowd in a belted safari jacket, unshaven, and long-haired.
When I was seven years old, my father used to take me to the circus,” Cohen begins. “He had a black mustache, a gray vest, and a pansy in his lapel, and he liked the circus better than I did. But there was one thing that happened at the circus that I used to wait for. I don’t want to impose upon you… but there was one moment when a man would stand up and say, ‘Would someone light a match so we can locate one another?,’ and could I ask you, each person, to light a match so I can see you all?
It was an oblique address to the carnage. Cohen, despite his shabby appearance and the late hour, offers an understated refinement. The unusual combination of details — the pansy in his father’s lapel and the man with the matches — makes for a vivid image. And his admission, “I don’t want to impose upon you,” isn’t an act. He’s a self-conscious, humble musician, and, after the violence of the past few days, he knows that lighting individual matches was the most he could reasonably hope for. He might have subdued the crowd, but that initial sense of delirium continues to permeate Lerner’s film. Partially re-purposed from additional footage of Cohen shot for his 1996 feature, Message to Love, Lerner has since mixed this material with more recent reflections from Cohen’s manager and pianist, Bob Johnston, and Joan Baez, Judy Collins, and Kris Kristofferson, who all played the same night. Cohen’s 4 am introduction creates a suspension of disbelief for both his concert and Lerner’s production; a performer so in command of his charms that, looking back, his mastery of the crowd seems almost preordained. Cohen is unobtrusive, yet firm. He does not hustle for attention. Even as a songwriter, he circles around the same melancholic themes. The flower children lit their matches and stared. “I would love to see those matches flare. I know that you know why you’re lighting them,” he continued, and broke into “Bird On A Wire.”
Leonard Cohen intones more than he sings. He speaks as though rhythmically chanting or narrating, and his singing possesses only slightly more range. One critic has compared the depth of his voice to a cantus firmus, the foundation of early sacred vocal music. The main melody is usually sung by lowest voice, and foregrounds the harmony. It is a particularly apt analogy in light of Cohen’s restoration of the festival to its intended format; who else could tame half a million unruly youth with a line like, “The river is swollen up with rusty cans/ And the trees are burning in your promised land”? In the 1960s and 70s, rock festivals took on the epic proportions of religious feasts, with adherents bound by lysergic communion. Before turning to songwriting, Cohen was a poet and novelist in Montreal, influenced by mythology, the Psalms, and the lyricism of Gabriel García Lorca. Some of the songs that he plays here, each from one of his first three albums –”Diamonds in the Mine,” “The Stranger Song,” and “One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong”–also appropriate spiritual motifs. That same year, he would go on to study Rinzai Buddhism and shave his head. He has always held a sort of mystical importance for his fans. One young person at the festival told Lerner at the time, “It’s like going to Bethlehem. I mean, they all went to where little baby Jesus came to be, and we came for Leonard Cohen.” The Biblical angle is comically extended when Johnston says, in the new footage, that the conflict between the concertgoers and the festival organizers “has been going on since time began, and then Jesus took the money lenders out of the market and they became managers and record executives.”
In spite of the film’s sloppiness, Cohen remains intact, both then and now. After spending most of the 90s living as a Buddhist monk in a Los Angeles monastery, his former business manager robbed him of over five million dollars. The release of Live at the Isle of Wight coincided with Cohen’s world tour to compensate the damage and is Lerner’s sixth documentary in a string of individual artists’ festival performances. The film’s editing is slapdash, in contrast to Cohen’s concerts which still feel disarmingly restrained. Lerner’s decision to splice the added interviews into the performance seems especially bizarre; a move perhaps designed simply to lengthen the film’s running time. A clip of Cohen putting his guitar over his head to play “One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong” is used as impetus for Judy Collins’s comment that she feels entitled to cover his songs, since she was the first person to sing “Suzanne.” Later, Lerner breaks up the beginning of Cohen’s own, stunning rendition of that famous homage to a friend’s mysterious wife with Collins’ dull reminiscences of his early stage fright. The film could also have benefited from some additional information on the political context that gave way to the apocalypse on the hill. As is, it’s the footage of Cohen that tells the story. The camera pans across the faces of hypnotized male fans on “The Stranger Song.” His version of “Tonight Will Be Fine” rings as a prayer of undiluted, rattling desperation. With his characteristic humor, Cohen manages to transcend both this poorly constructed film and the festival’s chaos. “They’ve surrounded the island,” he tells the audience. “One of these days, we’re gonna have this land for our own.”