Documentarian Nick Broomfield Takes a Melancholy Look Back at Leonard Cohen and his First Muse.
DIRECTED BY NICK BROOMFIELD/2019
“The Essential Leonard Cohen” CD release contains two discs. As advertised, both are chock-full of the revered singer/poet’s most fundamental and imperative songs. Disc one focuses on the early, often pained autobiographical works. These songs tend to sound aged, brittle, sepia toned. They drift at you like pointed whisps, often stinging in their melancholy and uncertainty. Songs about illicit encounters like “Famous Blue Raincoat”, “Chelsea Hotel #2”, and songs that get more specific, citing important lovers in the life of this supposed ladies’ man: “Suzanne”, and “So Long, Marianne”.
Disc two is the later stuff, the strangely cerebral works that tend to turn up in movies by Oliver Stone, Tony Scott, or Zack Snyder. Respectively, these include “The Future”, “Waiting for the Miracle”, and “First we Take Manhattan”. Epics, every one of them, dynamic and infectiously dark ruminations. If disc one is Cohen opening up to us, disc two is him delivering his messages. Because if Greil Marcus is right about his notion of select cultural prophets in the arts tasked with the duty of warning us to a certain self-judgement before it’s too late (see the 2007 book The Shape of Things to Come), Cohen unquestionably resides in those rarified ranks. These songs, arguably, are where he earns such standing; less vulnerable but with a hauntingly sick calm, a laser fixation on an elusive reality. In any case, there’s a distinct difference, a divide. A before and after.
[This film] burns, seeping into us not unlike the hazy-sounding early songs in question. As such, the film itself is a sunned old snake, contemplative and resigned. And, it won’t stop snaking itself.
In well over a decade of critiquing films of all shapes and sizes, I’ve quoted my fair share of song lyrics, both overtly and slyly. Of all the artists I’ve referenced, Cohen’s work is without question among my most utilized. To me, many films evoke Cohen lines; though Cohen lines are like no others. My aim in this admittedly irresistible practice hasn’t been to appropriate the lyrics so much as to connect thematic dots and, more often than not, evoke the feel of the film in question.
In that regard, don’t look for any Cohen lyrics here. Marianne and Leonard is not a film about his music, or even entirely about him; though at times, detour that way it must. Though it is his celebrity and invocation of his lover of a decade, Marianne Ihlen, that provides justification for this documentary to exist, it is their highly unconventional relationship that makes up the bedrock of the film. Indeed, were Cohen to have never veered into fame and fortune, their relationship would still be an interesting thing.
Acclaimed documentarian Nick Broomfield (b. 1948) thoroughly understands this. Broomfield himself, though chronically under the radar, has enjoyed blips of notoriety outside of his longstanding status as a documentarian’s documentarian. Though diverse in subject matter and even form (his work is typically minimalist, and later having developed a form he dubbed “Direct Cinema”, not even always documentary; such as the political and sociologically driven Ghosts  and Battle for Haditha ), his most known works are musician based: 1998’s Kurt & Courtney; 2002’s Biggie and Tupac; 2017’s Whitney: Can I Be Me. The prime subjects must almost always be dead before Broomfield sweeps in to give his own distinct take on their story, thereby cultivating a vaguely ghoulish through-line. Far from celebrations, these films linger as personal investigations, emphasis on “personal”. It’s especially true in this case, as Broomfield, in his deceptively matter-of-fact narration, reveals early on that he himself knew Marianne, and even that briefly, they were lovers. She is presented as sympathetically enigmatic; Cohen as enigmatically aloof, a terminal wanderer more committed to the ether.
Before Cohen was famous or even published, he joined the free-spirited Marianne Ihlen to live on the Greek island of Hydra. The film makes the point that Hydra was an anomaly of beauty in all the Earth; a sun-drenched paradise so perfect as to have rendered some who’ve left it suicidal. Ihlen, as painted by Broomfield, was a luminous being who simply belonged to such a place. She supported Cohen in his early career as a struggling poet and author. Under the spell of fasting, amphetamines, sunstroke, and the island itself, he knocked out his mildly revered and mostly reviled novel, Beautiful Losers. Internalizing its mass rejection, Cohen gravitated into songwriting, then performing, then some sort of stardom. By the time singer Judy Collins, having recoded his song “Suzanne”, nudged him onto the stage to sing his own stuff, he was still a young man yet already old.
Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love wouldn’t be possible were it not for the impressively extensive archive of 8mm home movies depicting the early days and subsequent film and video captured by others both on the fly and formally. Broomfield’s contemporary on-camera interviews are sometimes revealed to be conversational, his own active voice heard. He talks to an impressive many of the surviving luminaries of the time, though absent, for one, is Ihlen’s long-suffering son, Axel Jr. He is the truly wrecked victim in the flailing and fevered loves of his mother and the surrogate fatherhood of the disappearing poet.
Cohen fans looking for a definitive detailing of his career and/or a glowing tribute would be wise to heed the title’s cues. This of course is not that. Sometimes, it’s even outright damning of him. But, any longtime fan of Cohen can handle that. Words of Love, is, first and foremost, a Nick Broomfield film. Though many vintage Cohen performances are played back, many spanning his career arguably far beyond the major influence of his time with Ihlen, the director is careful not to let the songs overtake his own tonal hand. Though Cohen’s early songs must be the de facto soundtrack of this very “disc one” documentary, their controlled usage is felt. So too is the Hydra sun and all the acid taken by the subjects, both undeniable in their influence on Cohen’s poetry and music. It burns, seeping into us not unlike the hazy-sounding early songs in question. As such, the film itself is a sunned old snake, contemplative and resigned. And, it won’t stop snaking itself.
Still, there’s the reality that Leonard Cohen’s work can’t be contained. This is but one aspect of his really radically right and wrong relationship with but one of his muses- before and after. Perhaps Marianne was Leonard’s greatest and most vital muse, and therefore worthy of transcending such shackles via this fuller rendering. But lest we forget, it is his words and songs that have gotten under our skin and stuck to the backs of the inside of our skulls; reverberating, replaying, and echoing ad infinitum. She subjugated herself to him, up to a point; while he took her seeds of love and left, using them to grow into a celebrity puzzle-man and prophet. A cad, a kook, a con man, a clown, a gentleman, a monk, and finally a wizened statesman from whom we cannot un-cling. He is, in short, The Essential Leonard Cohen.
But, prophets, in all their flawed glory, are brought about to be listened to. In the case of this gone prophet, Broomfield reminds us again and again that no man is an Ihlen- but this Ihlen is all woman.