Tuesday, January 19, 2010

LEONARD COHEN: Live at the Isle of Wight takes us back to 1970

Longtime fans of Leonard Cohen (or latecomers and young-
sters who might won-
der what all the fuss was about) will want to see LEONARD COHEN: LIVE AT THE ISLE OF WIGHT.
To view Mr. Cohen some 40 years ago is a revelation.

By now we have heard so many of his songs done by so many other performers (and usually quite well; these people are generally better singers than was/is Cohen), that to see him performing his own work casts a special spell. (That's Cohen now, below, left, and Cohen then, below, right.) As a performer in 1970 the man exuded an amazing quiet; the simplicity of his delivery -- combined with his ability to bring poetry to his lyrics -- puts to shame so much of the overwrought stuff we've been getting for the past several decades. Cohen's lyrics are the real thing: not the pseudo-poetry -- empty and full of the deliberate obfuscation -- offered by many lesser artists.

Musically, Cohen's work is fairly simple and repetitive, as befits his monotone voice. He seems to be going up or down the musical scale, one line at a time. Yet this serves him well (or maybe he serves it: singer/songwriters tend to compose what they are able to perform without challenging their vocal abilities).

The Isle of Wight is an island just off England's southern coastline where, in 1970, 600,000 gathered, many of them "crashing" this third annual music festival, breaking down fences and other barriers, even setting fire to structures and equipment. (Woodstock this was not.) Anarchy reigned, and by around 2 am that morning, just after Jimi Hendrix had driven the crowd into a frenzy, it was hoped that Cohen, with his quieter music, might calm it down.

No less a performer than Kris Kristofferson seems still amazed at Cohen's abilities in that dark arena to bring the crowd to a hush. "He was such an honest performer," "Kristofferson recalls. "He didn't scramble after anybody's attention." The crowd let Cohen finish his entire set. However, notes Kris with some envy, they didn't give him the same chance. In addition to Kristofferson, we hear from Joan Baez, Judy Collins and Bob Johnston, who all speak with deep affection for the man and his work.

The producer and director of this concert film, Murray Lerner (shown at left), was able to shoot his footage in a remarkably intimate manner. We're on top of Cohen and his crew with better-than-ringside seats. We see almost nothing of the crowd, however, though we do hear their applause. At one point Cohen asks everyone to light a match and wave it so he can get some sense of who and where they are in the darkness. A few lights begin to glow -- "We're sorely in need of matches," he calls out to them -- but there must not have been that many smokers among the half million or more.

There is a similarity to some of the songs -- No Way to Say Goodbye and Suzanne, for instance, that surprised me, yet all of them are so good they can easily be sung by others and sound even better (as the recent Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man soundtrack proves). At the end of his set -- the entire film, interviews and credits included, runs only 64 minutes -- the songwriter's simple "Good night, friends, and thank you. Really: Thank you," brings this beautiful little time capsule to a perfect close.

LEONARD COHEN: LIVE AT THE ISLE OF WIGHT opens Friday, January 22, at New York City's Cinema Village.

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