October 22, 2009

Interview: Murray Lerner, Isle of Wight Film Director, Talks Leonard Cohen

Released this week on DVD, Leonard Cohen: Live At The Isle of Wight 1970 chronicles the singer/songwriter’s landmark set at the five-day music festival in England. Directed by Academy Award winning filmmaker Murray Lerner—whose credits include Message To Love: The Isle of Wight Festival 1970, The Other Side of The Mirror: Bob Dylan At Newport and Amazing Journey: The Story of The Who—the documentary renders Cohen as the infamous event’s saving grace.

Despite an unprecedented audience of 600,000 and a roster of high-profile acts from The Who and Joni Mitchell to Sly & The Family Stone and Jimi Hendrix, the massive happening quickly took on an iniquitous subtext. Tension between many in the crowd and the concert organizers (who hadn’t prepared for such staggering attendance) was inevitably directed toward the artists, resulting in a climate of random disruptions and resentment.

It’s within this context that Lerner frames Cohen’s performance, interspersing it with present commentary by other artists, including Joan Baez and Kris Kristofferson, who were also on the bill.

Murray Lerner recently spoke to Donald Gibson about his latest film as well as his thoughts on Dylan and the essential power of music.

There are a lot of sustained close-ups on Cohen’s face, which seem to reflect the way the audience was paying attention to him.

Excellent point. I think he made them feel very intimate with him. And I wanted to show that. He was the only one that I can think of, out of all the performers, who actually expressed sympathy and consensus with the audience’s ideals and feelings. [When] he in a sense said, “We’re a nation, but we’re weak. We need to get stronger,” he was telling the audience that he was on their side ideologically. 

He was empathetic.

Yeah. Therefore, I think that meant a lot. A lot of the performers were upset with the audience—and rightly so because of the conditions… As Joni [Mitchell] was saying, “Please give me some [respect].” In other words, be aware of my feelings. She wasn’t saying, “I’m aware of your feelings.”

She was basically saying, I need you to quiet down so I can do my thing.

Right—“I’m an artist and this is my life.” She wasn’t saying, “Well, you’re in a bad position; I understand why you’re doing this.” But [Cohen] was. He wasn’t being clever; I think that’s just what he really felt… He was one with the audience almost instantly… Ordinarily a quiet, acoustic set wasn’t their thing… The thing is, though, he was there for them. [Also], T.S. Eliot said, “[Genuine] poetry can communicate before it is understood.” And as Joan Baez said [in the commentary], she didn’t understand a lot of it, but it worked. That’s true. Because of that, they were really listening.

Also in the commentary, Kris Kristofferson suggests that one of the reasons the crowd didn’t turn on Cohen was because he wasn’t intimidated by them.

Right. He was very prepossessing. He was his own man and he wasn’t really feeling adversarial.

Having filmed Dylan at Newport, particularly in ’65, and then Cohen five years later at the Isle of Wight, how would you contrast their relationship to the audience?

That’s a good question. It was a big contrast. The audience booed in ’65—not the whole audience, [but] in a way, it was the opposite of Cohen. To me, the music was absolutely hypnotic and mesmerizing with Dylan; I loved it. Now, people were thrown by the unexpectedness of it, but if you think about it, the lyrics reflected what the audience felt. He was talking about their feelings, the alienation of young people. It’s a very mysterious thing because I guess they didn’t respond to the lyrics. They responded to…

The volume.

The volume, right, the electric part of it, which I thought was great. I don’t think it’s volume [though] that creates the power of electric music. It induces a kind of hypnosis in the body, gets into the nerves. It’s always fascinated me.

What is it about music in general or music performance specifically that has interested you as a primary subject to document?

I was fascinated with how a performer used the power of music to relate to the audience. I think that’s really my constant theme. But someday I want to make a film about the power of music. It’s an amazing phenomenon… What does it mean to get 100,000 people—or 600,000 people—in concert? They want something that the music gives them but also that the music allows [for] them to be together with other people.

It’s communal.

It’s a communal activity. People evidently need that. Why, we don’t know, but they do.