Monday, October 19, 2009

A Q&A with Leonard Cohen Live at the Isle of Wight director Murray Lerner

Posted By on Mon, Oct 19, 2009 at 2:50 PM

While Woodstock was three days of (relative) peace and love, the 1970 Isle of Wight festival was a far more raucous affair. Documentary filmmaker Murray Lerner was there for the entire time, filming the performances for a documentary that wouldn’t see the light of day until 1995. His footage of Leonard Cohen’s mesmerizing performance that stilled a crowd ready to riot makes up the DVD portion of Leonard Cohen: Live at the Isle of Wight 1970, a new CD/DVD release which is in stores tomorrow. Lerner recently spoke about his footage and recalled his experiences at the historic concert.

Leonard Cohen didn’t come out onto the stage until something like 2 a.m. What was your state of mind at that hour?
Well, I was anxious. We had been going for more than five days because we had filmed before concert as well. I had hoped it would be a successful performance because I didn’t want it to end badly. I knew it was acoustic, so I was really worried. We were tired but we were so excited that tiredness wasn’t a problem. When he walked out with his guitar, I thought, “Uh-ho.” But the magic of his singing and lyrics took over and he had the crowd in the palm of his hand. A lot of hs remarks spoke to what the crowd felt. They had been rebellious, but they realized they couldn’t win the war. He expressed his sympathy for their ideals. He made them part of the thing by saying, “Light a match” and so-forth. His banter was very helpful when pulling the crowd in and his lyrics were important because they made people fell like something was happening emotionally. It carried the day.

You’ve said you almost packed up your gear and got the hell out of there.
Not then but when there was the fire. The fire was very peculiar and it shows you how dumb people can be. Two weeks before the festival, the event organizers had planned to set off fireworks. The guy just set them off despite what was happening at the festival. I thought that was it. I had never experienced the power of a crowd and what it can do to destroy you. There was no way you can stand up to the crowd. I was worried about that. I kept making plans to move this or that. The only time we did pack up was during the fire. Once we saw nothing was happening, we unpacked.

That story that Cohen tells about going to the circus is oddly mesmerizing. What did you think of it?
I thought that was very captivating and I thought it would help calm down the crowd. It gave me an image of him that I hadn’t had before. I knew it intellecutllay that he came from a middle class family. But I didn’t realize that fully about him. His family had money, and he was partly supported by them, I think.

I love the footage you have of the crowd during “The Stranger Song.” People really were hypnotized.
I know that. Judy Collins and I looked at each during that song because it’s a very powerful and mysterious song. It’s beautifully written. It’s one of the best songs he’s ever written. It’s a poem, really.

Leonard Cohen has such an aura about him. Did you get to know him?
No. Not at all. He asked me what to sing. I told him I didn’t know. I had no contact with him whatsoever. I didn’t have time. Now I wish I had more time. It was very hectic trying to direct and shoot and organize this thing.

It took some time for your footage from the festival to see the light of day. What was the hold-up?
I was a bad salesman. I had a very unusual demo reel of 70 minutes. It was shown at the Museum of Modern Art as a work in progress. No one put up the money for it, partly because of the other stuff I had in it. I refused to make it without the full approach that was about the power of money in the music business.

You’ve said you never experienced anything like Cohen’s performance before or since. Does this film make you nostalgic for that era?
Yes, it does. There’s an excitement when rock music works and takes over a crowd. It does make me nostalgic for that music and time. It does come back periodically. Pete Seeger does it when he’s in shape. And Springsteen, to some extent. And McCartney, to some extent. I must say I have been to recent Cohen concerts, and they are really great. It’s really incredible. They’re three-hour concerts. Some of the songs still hold up and his talent hasn’t diminished in terms of songwriting. There’s a mysterious quality to it and you don’t quite know why it works. That’s unique to him.

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