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A magical performance from Leonard Cohen's prime that is essential to own
on 15 March 2010
Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Murray Lerner has unearthed quite a gem in making this film, featuring Leonard Cohen's mesmerizing Isle of Wight performance from 1970. The 64-minute film deftly weaves modern interviews from relevant performers and associates of Leonard Cohen with the vintage musical performance by Cohen and his band, the affectionately named "Army" comprised of such stalwarts as legendary music producer Bob Johnston.
The audio quality is a sonic revelation, obliterating my expectations for a live multi-track recording from 1970 staged in front of 600,000 fans that had gotten rowdier as the festival progressed. Jimi Hendrix had performed his set before Cohen, with the crowd setting various things on fire like a piano and the scaffolding surrounding the stage. But the music was not to be denied, as Leonard Cohen slowly took the stage after they found a replacement piano and organ.
At 4 a.m. on August 31, 1970, the man introduced to the crowd as "a novelist, a poet, an author, a singer", began his intimate performance that encompassed most of the hits that had earned him acclaim, from "Bird On the Wire" to "Suzanne" and other well-known songs mainly from his first two albums. A nice surprise are the short stories Cohen shares and poem fragments he uses to introduce many of the songs. The crowd, who had booed previous performers like Kris Kristofferson, sat in rapt attention to the mostly acoustic set. My only quibble is that the complete audio performance by Leonard Cohen is not included on the Blu-ray. The CD version includes a couple of songs not shown in the documentary. I have no idea if the footage simply did not exist or was simply left out at the director's discretion.
The Blu-ray, on a single BD-25, is transferred from the original 16mm camera negative to 1080i. This is not footage that is going to blow viewers away by its visual quality. In fact, on an comparative basis, the BD is well below the norm expected for high-definition titles. Prepare for an experience of limited visual quality that remains faithful to the limited fidelity of the existing film. It is true that this Blu-ray replicates as closely as possible the 16mm film source the concert was shot in those many years ago. The modern interviews, with such luminaries as Judy Collins and Joan Baez, are all in excellent picture quality, but do remind the viewer of the inherent limitations in the concert footage as they are interspersed between songs. Still, it looks similar to the other concert footage I have seen from the era on the Blu-ray format. The only major defect is the continual appearance of an ultra-thin vertical black line that runs down the middle of the camera image on tight close-ups of Leonard Cohen. It looks to be the result of a continuous gate scratch on the original 16mm film. A small emulsion error in the original master also appears in the corner of the frame, later in the concert.
On a technical basis the transfer looks perfect without a hint of artifacting, revealing every limitation and nuance of the source material. The AVC encode consistently runs at very high bitrates, most of the time in the thirties. I would estimate an average video bitrate of 31 Mbps, which allows the fuzzy film, shot in questionable lighting conditions to reveal its full resolution on Blu-ray. The image has a low-contrast appearance that is soft and has moments of poor focus. The black levels have some minor exposure problems, revealing a bit of noise. This is not a transfer with remarkable shadow detail, or even average detail, but looks on par with other concert footage I have viewed from the period. The Woodstock documentary on Blu-ray has vaguely similar picture quality. Tiny white specks that look like flash bulbs do pepper the image from time to time. It rarely becomes a distraction though.
The picture quality is tolerable enough to enjoy the real benefit of this BD release, the uncompressed high-resolution stereo PCM track at 24-bit/96 kHz and the lossless 5.1 Dolby TrueHD soundtrack. Both are simply spellbinding and really the only way one should listen to this material. Mastering engineer Mark Wilder has done an outstanding job. The music shows absolutely no signs of limiting or compression, and reproduces without fault this live audio document. It captures the full magic Leonard Cohen made that night on stage, connecting to the audience in a way few performers ever achieve in a lifetime. I wish most music releases were mastered this carefully. There is not a hint of thinness to the sound, and the fidelity is surprisingly great for a project of this nature. At times the songs approach the quality of the studio versions in dynamics and clarity. The producer did not attempt to cover up any deficits in the original recording though. A few microphone pops occur, and occasionally instruments bleed into other channels. The audience is barely audible most of the time, except during the musical interludes. With both SACD and DVD-Audio being commercially irrelevant for the major music labels, this disc is the best fidelity we will ever see this music presented in a commercial medium.
A lot of care and thought has gone into the packaging and presentation of this release. Included is a 16-page booklet that has wonderful photographs and top-notch liner notes by Sylvie Simmons. The booklet reproduces the same content of the booklet included in the CD/DVD release, but in a much larger format that is easier to read and enjoy. It really makes the numerous archival photographs easier to appreciate. It is rare to see such entertaining and insightful liner notes that significantly add to the product, but that is plainly the case here. Aside from a menu, there are no extras on the disc itself.
Currently this BD is an exclusive title at the Internet retailer Amazon. Fans of Leonard Cohen need to go out and pick this item up immediately. The concert is a window to a much younger looking-and-sounding Leonard Cohen. The sound quality alone is enough reason to buy it, for Cohen truly invests emotion and vigor into the performance, that puts a new spin on songs for fans only familiar with the album versions. His vocal inflection adds a bit of emotional weariness to "The Partisan" for example that is simply not there on the album version. The only lackluster performance is "Famous Blue Raincoat", where it sounds as if Cohen's voice grows fatigued by the long night. The backing musicians all give splendid accompaniment to the music, though the camera rarely shows them, aside from the two comely female singers at Cohen's side.