At 4 a.m. on the fifth and final night of the troubled 1970 Isle of Wight concert, the not-yet-legendary Leonard Cohen stepped onstage before a raucous crowd of 600,000 and promptly captivated the unruly masses. Murray Lerner’s mesmerizing docu closely chronicles Cohen’s set, only occasionally breaking away to record audience reactions or interview fellow performers, who even today profess astonishment at how Cohen turned the night around. Must-see footage for fans and for those less hip to Cohen’s early stylings, the docu, already out on DVD, opens theatrically Jan. 22nd at Gotham’s Cinema Village.
Anger over admission fees, fences and patrol dogs led the crowd, three times larger than expected, to overturn barriers and set fires. Anarchy threatened, stoked by Jimi Hendrix’s magnificently incendiary perf; indeed, Cohen’s appearance was delayed by the need to replace the piano and organ, which had been set ablaze during Hendrix’s set.
Some acts were booed off the stage, notably Kris Kristofferson, who, in both archival and present-day footage, attests to the ugliness of the crowd and the ease with which Cohen charmed them. Helmer Lerner reveals this background context incrementally, around the edges of Cohen’s bravura performance.
Neither defensive nor defiant, Cohen quickly established a quiet, confessional intimacy with his audience, opening with a childhood anecdote that ended with the request that everyone light a match so he could see them (prefiguring the communal lighters of modern-day concerts).
At the time of the concert, Cohen’s voice had not yet attained the gravelly basso profundo that came to characterize his stylistic reinvention. His more inflected notes and husky sincerity here belong to his wistful “troubadour” phase, making up in sheer hypnotic beauty what his vocalizations later gained in incantatory power.
Lerner’s steady closeups and restrained editing over prolonged stretches mimic the rapt attention of the crowd. Cohen was only entering the third year of his singer-songwriter career but, after two successful albums, his selections were instantly recognizable to concertgoers; the opening chords of “Bird on a Wire,” “Suzanne,” “The Stranger Son” or “Goodbye Marianne” were greeted with anticipatory delight. A rousing bluegrass-y rendition of “Tonight Will Be Fine” highlights the backup band, dubbed “the Army,” which legendary producer Bob Johnston assembled, including Nashville musicians Charlie Daniels, Ron Cornelius and Elkin “Bubba” Fowler. Johnston offers down-home, ecstatic reminiscences of the 40-year-old event that trump the more sedate recollections of Judy Collins and Joan Baez.
Docu reps Oscar-winning music documentarian Lerner’s eighth utilization of his extensive 16mm Isle of Wight footage. This gift that keeps on giving yielded one feature on the entire festival (“Message to Love”), as well as well-crafted individual docus on sets by Hendrix, the Who, Jethro Tull, Moody Blues, ELP and Miles Davis.