Documentary filmmaker Nick Broomfield is not one to shy away from salacious material. Tackling candle-in-the-wind musical lives such as Kurt Cobain, Whitney Houston and Biggie and Tupac in previous non-fiction explorations, his latest film stays in line with the cult celebrity focus, this time adjusting its gaze on poet-songwriter Leonard Cohen and his decades-long relationship with his beautiful Swedish lover Marianne Ihlen.
And, yes, it doesn’t take long for someone (this time one of Cohen’s old road managers) to lament about the sexual excess of Cohen back in the day, even going so far as to wistfully hint at their own sexual conquests, just by being at the periphery of Cohen’s expansive shadow, complete with jovial stare off in the distance as glory days are recalled.
Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love inserts a lot of this type of gossip-magazine rhetoric, which at times makes it almost unbearable to watch. Yet, just when one thinks the documentary will never strike at the heart of anything genuine, it slowly coalesces into a moving collection of memories between two people destined to love each other deeply without having the joy of growing old together.
Beginning as Cohen and Ihlen first meet on the Greek island of Hydra in the 1960s, Marianne & Leonard charts their immediate attraction to each other, even though Ihlen was married with children. With the excuse of the rampant free-love swinging 60s culture, the two begin a highly visible off-and-on romance that far outlasts their expatriate paradise of hippies, reclusive writers and artists.
In fact, although the first half of the film is a bit messy and problematic with its narrative, it does a reasonably solid job of exploring the culture and population of Hydra itself. Seen as a sort of voracious melting pot for early 60s drop outs, including Broomfield himself, who naturally inserts himself into the story because he had his own relationship with Ihlen, the film virtually ignores its front and center couple, introducing others and describing their cursed fates years later.
The main draw, as Broomfield knows, is gravel-voiced singer Leonard Cohen, and it’s not long before he refocuses the documentary onto the musician’s elevated rise to cult stardom and whirlwind musical tours around the world. For someone not completely fluent about Cohen, Marianne &Leonard will do just fine as a biographical document of the man … although, for my money, it waits far too long to showcase any of his profoundly moving song “Hallelujah.”
How the relationship between Marianne Ihlen and Leonard Cohen bobs and weaves through the years of his immaculate stardom (basically, 1970 onwards) comprises the second half of the film, and it’s here that Broomfield’s voice as a more humanitarian filmmaker emerges. Left behind is the sully gossip and Polaroid snapshot National Inquirer feel for a more serious examination of the disparate paths Cohen and Ihlen take later in life.
And when Cohen quietly wonders aloud into a microphone if Marianne is in the audience before performing the song he penned for her, Broomfield’s film strikes at the heart of something deep and regretful. It also becomes quite clear why the film places her name before Leonard’s.
Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love opens in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on Friday, July 19 at the Angelika Film Center in Plano and the Magnolia Theatre in Dallas.