Nick Broomfield’s longtime friendship with Marianne Ihlen is the point of entry for “Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love,” which tells the story of the ’60s romance between Norwegian divorcee Ihlen and Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen. It was a relationship that cast a long shadow in both their lives, as well as in popular culture (notably via his song “So Long, Marianne”), though its sporadic nature also spoke to the era’s Free Love ethos and Cohen’s short-attention-span romanticism in particular. Broomfield, a dogged protagonist in films like “Tales of the Grim Sleeper” and “Tracking Down Maggie,” to name just a couple, pretty much keeps out of the way here, letting plentiful archival footage and a few latter-day interviewees (but neither Ihlen nor Cohen) tell the tale.
Since Cohen’s relentlessly self-reflective life has been amply documented, and Ihlen’s considerably less so, much of this ostensible dual portrait ends up being a recap of Cohen’s life and career — not exactly fresh documentary terrain. Still, it’s an entertaining flashback to an always-diverting countercultural epoch, with a touching footnote of a semi-famous love story at its center.
Ihlen was raising a son alone after the collapse of an unhappy marriage when Cohen met her on the Greek isle of Hydra in 1960. She was part of a then-tiny colony of expat artists and bohemian types living in that idyllic setting; he wound up there by chance, traveling on prize money from his pre-musical occupation as a poet. He fell in love with the island, her and the idea of being a father figure for her child, Axel. While his writing flourished there, he eventually felt he needed to return to North America for part of the year to further his career. On one of those trips, the folk singer Judy Collins goaded him into performing one of the songs he’d begun to write, despite his considerable, and admitted, vocal limitations. He was immediately swept up in the singer-songwriter movement, and the adulation that came with it.
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Older than his contemporaries in that genre, handsome and elegant rather than scruffy, Cohen (and his romantically angsty songs) instantly began to draw an overwhelmingly female fan base. Though he had seemingly little in common with the emerging world of “cock rock,” in his own way he, too, lived the classic rock life of groupies and other hedonistic excess.
Cohen’s problems with depression would eventually lead him to a lengthy stint in a Buddhist monastery (during which absence his manager embezzled his entire fortune). Still, it’s hard not to see his behavior as caddish, however he intellectualized it. The primary women in his life all “overlapped,” each getting a song or two, enduring long absences and constant infidelities before the ramblin’-man artiste finally moved on.
Ihlen remains something of a cipher here, not exactly a victim but also someone who probably should have bailed much sooner on their one-sided relationship. (We actually see Cohen joking onstage about how each year he spends less time with “So Long” Marianne.) She doesn’t appear to have resented him, yet his inability to either commit or break up with her over a decade’s time certainly did not speed Ihlen toward finding a happy, stable life of her own. (Sadder still, the neglect all this caused Axel was doubtless a factor in his later drug and mental-health woes.)
Despite all this, Ihlen and Cohen remained in sporadic, fond communication over ensuing decades, dying just three months apart in 2016. We actually see her being read a poetical farewell telegram from him on her deathbed.
The director also met Ihlen on Hydra, in 1968, remaining friends after a brief romantic involvement. (A muse to many, she apparently convinced him to make his first film.) We hear excerpts from letters she wrote him, but she appears to have been the kind of person who directs most of their energy toward supporting others. So for increasingly long stretches, she becomes a background figure in “Marianne & Leonard.”
Though Cohen’s story has been told before, Broomfield nevertheless relates it entertainingly, mixing vintage concert excerpts and behind-the-scenes glimpses with the reminiscences of close friends and colleagues. Most vivid among latter-day interviewees are Aviva Layton (widow of the Romanian-Canadian poet Irving Layton, Cohen’s literary mentor) and producer-guitarist Ron Cornelius. Their personalities couldn’t be more different, but both offer hilarious insights into the pitfalls of ego and indulgence in a never-ending Summer of Love from which few elite travelers emerged unscathed.
Indeed, the principal romance of “Marianne & Leonard” is with the Sixties as a whole, and the doc’s flashback to expat hippie communities and carnivalesque artist lifestyles is terribly appealing — no matter the occasional overdose or suicide. The expertly assembled tech package, while heavy on familiar archival material, doesn’t fail to cast a nostalgic spell.