Documentarian Murray Lerner, who died Sept 2, 2017, captured Leonard Cohen’s legendary 1970 Isle of Wight performance on film. His recordings resulted in the 2007 DVD – Leonard Cohen Live at the Isle of Wight – 1970. In 2009, Harvey Kubernik, author of Leonard Cohen Everybody Knows, interviewed Lerner about the experience.
Q: Leonard Cohen: Live at the Isle of Wight – 1970. A full-length DVD out in 2010.
Murray Lerner: I shot color for the Cohen and the Isle of Wight performers. It was high-speed Ectochrome reversal. And I’m glad I did it because the color lasts a lot better in reversal. The camera people I had were with their own cameras for the most part but they used Arriflexes, and the clas and a new camera, the main camera man used an Aaton, a kind of avant garde camera at the time.
Q: The Isle of Wight Cohen footage captured close ups and focus on the dramatic aspect of faces. Cohen, some band members, female background singers is terrific.
Murray Lerner: Yes. I always use very very long lenses as an adjunct to my photography. I believe in the long shot because I would like the thing to feel musical and not jumpy. I think film is visual music. And it should be, and I believe in editing that way. You can moments where you are doing quick montage. Most of the time you need to relax. I like really long and before anyone ever did it I used 2,000 millimeter lenses and for crowd shots, moving in slow motion on Broadway. A lot of unusual stuff. I love people coming towards the camera and coming into close up. And then I got a 600 millimeter lens for my 16 millimeter camera, played around with it during Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee at Newport. Real close ups.
Q: At the August 31, 1970 Isle of Wight music festival on a small island off the southern coast of England Leonard Cohen was billed with Miles Davis, Joni Mitchell, the Who, the Doors, the Moody Blues, Jethro Tull and Jimi Hendrix. But the crowd, alas, had its own agenda, metastasizing into a heaving, barreling beast, crushing the gates and fences, rubbishing the prim seaside community. The throng numbered 600,000 and Cohen was at the epicenter of the event which now had fire and smoke encroaching structures and equipment. When Cohen and his band, which included Bob Johnston and Charlie Daniels, finally took to the stage, it was two o’clock in the morning. My brother Kenneth Kubernik described the scene remarkably well after viewing your Leonard Cohen Live at the Isle of Wight-1970 DVD in my book on Leonard, Everybody Knows.
“The punters, restless in the aftermath of Jimi Hendrix’s incendiary performance, were instantly tamed by this unkempt, unprepossessing gentleman, adorned in pajama bottoms (he’d been having a nap backstage and barely answered the bell to perform). As poised as Caesar before his legions, Cohen took command of his ‘Army’ – his group’s nickname – and held the half million attendees in thrall.
Murray Lerner: I’ve gone to some Cohen concerts over the last twenty years. Really incredible. It was hard to believe it was the same person. The songs hold up. I was really excited he was so good. I really was. His talent hasn’t diminished, especially in terms of songwriting. On stage I thought he was overdoing it in terms of his own energy. But there’s a mysterious quality to it and we don’t really know why it works. I just thought it’s amazing and I like some of the songs and some of them I had not heard. I really liked it and said to myself it is amazing he can still be doing this. He knows what he is doing and you do sense, when I went to the Beacon and Radio City Theaters, you sense there is a kind of formula to what he was doing. That part was not as good. His so called off the cuff remarks were the same at both. Isle of Wight, Leonard was much different than Miles, Jimi, the Doors and the Who. Because the talking on stage was very insightful of him, you know. He must have understood that by talking and speaking to them it gave him, or put him in touch or gave him a kind of camaraderie with the crowd that no one else tried to do. Maybe he felt he needed it and he may have. Leonard also had that fabulous guy, the producer who was in his band, Bob Johnston. I had quite a time over decades later getting him to be interviewed for the DVD. All performers have a common thread of some kind or they wouldn’t perform.