Movie Reviews: Two for Leonard Cohen – Isle of Wight Concert and I’m Your Man Tribute

Leonard Cohen: Live at the Isle of Wight 1970

Poets have written about the disordering of the senses through means that might include  drugs, eroticism, or prayer, in order to break down the barriers of consciousness and establish soul-to-soul communications with a great, mysterious Other.   Usually the poetry resulting from such self de-fragging is  obscure, if not meaningless, to those outside the experience. Once in a while, though, the poet breaks through to the people and poetry becomes prophecy. The world stops spinning for a sacred moment in which everyone joins the dance. Such an occasion was the 31st of August, 1970, at four in the morning, when, after five days of  wallowing in their own sludge, 600,000 people awoke to a similarly  ragged and haunted  Leonard Cohen.  For one angelic hour, both performer and audience occupied the  column of smoke that rose  from the singer’s breath and was carried away by passing clouds.

It is scandalous that Murray Lerner’s film of   Cohen’s Performance at the Isle of Wight has , like so many other brilliant performances from   the festival, languished unseen for forty years.  His overview of the festival, “Message to Love,” was finally released in 1995, but contained only “Suzanne”  from Cohen’s set. The  complete set is nothing short of a revelation, not only for the transcendence of Cohen’s performance, but for the reception it received.  Other guitar-slinging poets have held their audiences in awe, but there have been few occasions when said audiences actually got it.   Lerner captures the soul-to-soul experience of several listeners being transformed by Cohen’s poetry in a way that is almost unheard of the setting of popular culture.    The difference between this  film and  the recent Live in London dvd, is that today’s audiences worship Cohen while the 1970 audience worshipped with Cohen.

When Lerner intercuts contemporary interview footage with Joan Baez, Kris Kristofferson, Judy Collins, or Bob Johnson, into the concert, it never breaks the mood of Cohen’s performance, but always adds a little to our understanding of it.  This is a rare feat for a concert film, where it is common to suffer jarring cuts from the performance to inane backstage prattle and meaningless sound bites from friends and colleagues, and fans. Lerner uses comments by Judy Collins  “Suzanne” to create what is surely the  best introduction to a song made by somebody other than the on-stage performer. He also uses short bits from other performances, most notably Kris Kristofferson, to communicate the chaotic and hostile mood of the crowd in the hours preceding Cohen’s performance.

As a historical document,  “Leonard Cohen Live at the Isle of Wight 1970” is compromised by presenting an incomplete show with the songs presented in a different order than the one in which they were performed. The sound quality, as well as the 16mm photography, however, is excellent, and most of the performances are superior to their recorded versions.  Since this is 1970, Cohen is still performing some gems, such as “One of Us Cannot Be Wrong” from his debut 1967 album, that have  since disappeared from his set list. In addition to songs from the first two albums, some new material is previewed, including a version of “Sing Another Song, Boys” that became one of the highlights of the 1971 release, “Songs of Love and Hate.”

This film is a must for those with even a passing interest in Leonard Cohen.   “The Partisan,” his song about the sacrifices made by the French Underground and those who assisted them, concludes the concert,  although the film continues to no real purpose for some minutes after that.    After Cohen sings, “An old woman gave us shelter /  Kept us hidden in the garret / Then the soldiers came / She died without a whisper,”  there is nothing much more that anybody can say.

Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man

Leonard Cohen is an articulate spokesman for himself. Had he been allowed to sing for himself as well, “Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man” might have been the definitive word on the life and work of this distinguished Canadian songwriter.

As it is, the 14 songs taken from the 2005 “Came So Far for Beauty” tribute concert in Sydney, Australia, offer only a dim reflection of his genius.

The problem with the music is that the performers, though a varied and enthusiastic lot, fail to grasp the lyrical complexities of the material. The worst offender is Rufus Wainwright, whose “Chelsea Hotel” sells out the pathos of the Cohen lyric for a fluffed-up piece of sexual nostalgia.

Australia’s Nick Cave is one of the better performers, if only because he seems to understand the lyrics, even when he does not lend the best expression to them. The best rendition comes way out of left field, from an obscure New York singer named Antony. His strangely reverent version of “If It Be Your Will” is a soulful and introspective showstopper.

While it is interesting to hear how these younger people interpret Cohen’s material, the film suffers from the absence of the singers from his own era.

Particularly missed are Judy Collins, who first exposed him to the American public, and Joe Cocker, whose soulful version of “Bird on the Wire” was one of his trademark recordings.

The film comes to life when Cohen is on screen. A priceless moment has him reading the hilariously humble preface to the Chinese translation of his novel, “Beautiful Losers.” He also gives a concise history of his monastery years, which should clear the air of any misunderstanding of his ordainment as a Zen monk.

Nuggets of wisdom from the oldest practicing rock star include aphorisms such as, “I don’t look back at the past. I have no regrets or occasions for self congratulation.”

Had his acolytes a fraction of his levity and irony, “Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man” might have been more a celebration of life in the tower of song than an overly zealous talent show.

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