“We were playing in Ireland and the reception was so warm that tears came to my eyes and I thought ‘I can’t be seen weeping at this point – then I turned around and saw the guitar player weeping.” – Leonard Cohen, speaking of his 2008 Concerts in Kilmainham Hospital, Dublin.
The age of thirty three is almost ancient when you consider starting a music career. At that age a lot of artists have already achieved all they had set out to do. By comparison, Robert Plant was thirty two when Led Zeppelin called it a day. Nonetheless, that was the age of the late Leonard Cohen when he released his debut album in December 1967 – The Songs Of Leonard Cohen. Then again, Leonard Cohen was no ordinary musician, a passionately-intense poetic soul, exposing his gentle inner self to a parasitic, self-absorbed world and doing so in the most humblest of fashions. His connection to Ireland came to a height during those 2008 comeback concerts, where he developed a whole new fan base, which is why the documentary Marianne & Leonard: Words Of Love will prove very prevalent on these shores.
The other figure of the movie, Norwegian Marianne Ihlen, was Cohen’s muse and girlfriend in the early sixties. Songs dedicated to her litter his album output. From that aforementioned debut album the most obvious “So Long, Marianne,” though it’s believed several songs on Cohen’s first two albums contain tributes including “Bird On A Wire.” His second album, Songs From A Room (1969), displays a photo on the back cover of Ihlen. Tragically she died of leukaemia on the 28th of July 2016, a short three months before Cohen left us. A letter from Cohen was read at her bedside as Ihlen lay dying, a camera was there to capture her reaction (included in this documentary) stating that “… our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.”
This love affair, its background, and the influence both figures had on each other’s lives makes for an interesting tale of emotional heartbreak. These are the ingredients that forms the basis for director Nick Broomfield’s (Whitney: Can I Be Me) documentary film Marianne & Leonard: Words Of Love. The subjects fell in love in the early sixties, when Cohen left Montreal, and finally settling on the Greek island of Hydra. It was here they met and remained for much of the decade. Cohen the struggling writer, whilst Ihlen was a single mother recovering from the implosion of her marriage. On the surface this film should balance its focus evenly between both characters, but at times it simply loses its train of thought. In reality, the underlying current is that relationship between artist and influence, asking how important is your inspiration, even if they are your lover?
When eventually Cohen started to climb the ladder of recognition through music, a selfish streak reared its head and a world opened up to him far removed from what he once craved, including Ihlen. This documentary appears at times to display only one side of this spirited story, more so that of Leonard’s struggles as a writer, in particular his heavily criticised novel Beautiful Losers. The resulting shock-wave sent through his career at the novels’ rejection was, by this account, devastating. This lead in part to Cohen seeking out singer Judy Collins in New York to try his hand at songwriting. Collins recounts all of this in the documentary in a new interview, along with the resentment that Ihlen felt and displayed towards her for taking her love away. As Cohen rose to stardom, Marianne drifted back to nursing and another marriage in Oslo. Both, however, would remain in each other’s lives to some degree. The emotionally charged depiction Broomfield paints is meshed with his own feelings for Ihlen.
In the late sixties, he himself had traveled to Hydra, the Greek hideaway of the couple, befriending Marianne and later even becoming one of her lovers. This attachment to the subject is the underlying factor that overpowers what should be a more straightforward story. At times, unfortunately, it slips to the side of Cohen being the drug-addled writer, the evil master, and his muse Marianne merely a maid, the Cinderella figure who needs saving.
All that said, Marianne & Leonard: Words Of Love is compelling. Nothing is held back with regard to excess, depression, and the heartbreak that befell both parties. This warts-and-all story of a romance twisted in a paradise of art is executed with such style that the truth almost becomes fictionalised, at times resulting in dropped jaws of disbelief. Those expecting an epitaph to a man who created some of the most eloquent music of the twentieth-century might feel shortchanged. In the end what Nick Broomfield presents is a window into a world which simply disappeared almost five decades ago, through the eyes of a woman he once loved and a man who gave the world the bleakness of a broken heart.