Though less mythologized—at least in the United States—than Woodstock or even Altamont, the 1970 Isle of Wight music festival deserves its own place in the musical and cultural narratives in which the former two events serve as a kind of shorthand. With a record-breaking 600,000 attendees packed onto the tiny British island for five days of music punctuated by sporadic violence and unrest, the festival could be taken as an object lesson in the growth of a trans-Atlantic rock scene that was hurtling into the mainstream even as it kept one foot firmly planted in the underground, or in the passing of late-’60s optimism (and radicalism) into the comparatively jaded ’70s. Yet Wight’s reputation has never equaled the smaller stateside festivals, perhaps because it signifies dreamy romanticism less well than Woodstock and nightmarish tension less well than Altamont. It was, according to most, an ambiguous success, the crowd descending into neither frenzy nor free love, the performances mostly good, occasionally disappointing, rarely epochal.
Leonard Cohen: Live at the Isle of Wight is best appreciated as an attempt to salvage one outstanding performance from those hazy recollections. Though numerous concert films have already emerged from the festival (Jimi Hendrix’s Blue Wild Angel, Miles Davis’s Miles Electric: A Different Kind of Blue, and Jethro Tull’s Nothing Is Easy among them), Cohen’s set is particularly deserving of preservation for two reasons. First, it neatly encapsulates the drama of the festival, with Cohen waking at two in the morning to perform for a crowd that, following an incendiary performance by Hendrix, is at its most distressed, and appearing to tame it with his profoundly evocative mix of poetry and music. Second, the set, while not revolutionary in any musical sense, does show Cohen at an important stage in his career, fully stepping into his role as folkie-laureate for a generation steeped in disappointment.
The documentary draws from the same, seemingly inexhaustible, reels of footage that created not only the aforementioned films, but also director Murray Lerner’s 1995 Message from Love, which presented the Wight event in its full scope. As such, the footage appears grainy and unpolished, but that understandable problem should not detract from the enjoyment of Lerner’s skilled camera work or of the generally solid technical work that has been done in translating the film to a digital, big-screen format. Lerner culls the highlights from the performance, selecting snippets of Cohen’s typically wry and elliptical musings to pass time between outstanding renditions of Cohen classics like “Bird on a Wire,” “Suzanne,” and “The Partisan.” To be sure, Cohen is in fine form here, and it’s almost not worth mentioning that every considerable strength of this film depends foremost on his captivating presence. Lerner wisely keeps his focus on Cohen, combining close-ups with wider views that capture his band in action, while keeping audience pans and other distractions to a minimum. A capable editing job also allows the film to jump around Cohen’s set without feeling too jerky or artificial.
What feels far less natural are Lerner’s attempts to integrate bits and pieces of the Isle of Wight story into a film that really is, and should be, about a single performance. Brief snippets of crowd activity and attendee commentary during the introduction only detract from a perfectly fine version of “Diamond in the Mine,” and the clunky interjections from Joan Baez in the second half of the film—concerning the violence at the festival—contribute little of interest. Viewers interested in the festival as a sociological or historical matter in its own right already have access to Lerner’s more comprehensive Message, and these attempts to give context only dilute the sense of atmosphere which, aside from its importance to Cohen’s performance, actually does more to convey the mood of the crowd and performers than any brief commentary track. In this case, Lerner ought to have decided whether he wanted to make a concert film or a documentary with a wider focus; instead he does mostly the former with occasional attempts at the latter.
What’s most impressive about Live at the Isle of Wight is the hi-fi quality of the film’s audio track, which was supervised by Columbia producer Teo Macero in 1970 and reengineered by Steve Berkowitz for this release. Cohen’s famously rough and mournful baritone resonates in all of its youthful power, presenting a side of Cohen the performer that last year’s masterful Live in London, for all of its merits, simply could not. (Good news for Cohen fans: Columbia has decided to package the DVD version with a CD recording of Cohen’s entire performance, a generous 19-track offering that stands up admirably next to any available live record from the early part of Cohen’s career). Strangely, Werner excises several poems and songs in order to pare the runtime down to a svelte 64 minutes. This decision is difficult to understand, since those buying tickets will consist near exclusively of committed Cohen fans, the type who would certainly not mind spending more time in their seats to see a few more numbers. That’s meant as a mild criticism, but also a testimony to the overall strength of the presentation: As Cohen sings “So Long, Marianne” over the credits, audiences will likely wish for an encore.