In the summer of 1970, the British—reliably late to the party—threw a disastrous rock festival to call their own: the third installment of Isle of Wight, featuring the Doors, the Who and some 600,000 fans, most of whom had recused themselves from the indignity of purchasing tickets. Like all baby boomer music gatherings, the proceedings were immortalized on film, in this case by documentarian Murray Lerner. In 1995, the director unveiled a broad survey of the concert, Message to Love, and now, he returns to his archives to focus on the week’s most storied performance: a hazy set by Leonard Cohen, presented here with sporadic commentary from the singer’s contemporaries.
Having spent the past five days jeering and rioting, the audience was surly; Cohen’s instant soothing of the mob before him proves fascinating. The scruffy Canadian crooner-poet took the stage past 2am (shortly after Jimi Hendrix had set it on fire), and freshly roused from a nap, he’s the portrait of mellow, inhabiting his signature middle ground between oracle and lothario. Heard through the prism of the sleepy mass, Cohen’s lyrical surrealism becomes unusually pronounced, while songs slip away like dreams: As one line begins to make sense, the next evaporates into madness. The Isle of Wight crowd watches transfixed, as if in collective reverie; four decades on, filmgoers just might too.