Prolific documentary maker Nick Broomfield returns with another musical project, this time choosing a more personal topic: the relationship between Leonard Cohen and Broomfield’s close friend Marianne Ihlen.
“I was born,” Leonard Cohen once remarked, “with the gift of a golden voice.” Viewers of Broomfield’s new documentary Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love will discover he was born with a good deal else besides. Cohen’s soft bass mumblings stretch out over the running time, filling the air with his unique sensitivity and sad humour, as we learn more about his family’s history of mental illness, his preoccupation with life’s darker side and, of course, his pained but compulsive relationship with women: an ever-present theme in his songs as well as his life’s story.
In particular, we hear about Marianne, the young Danish woman he befriended whilst both were on the Greek isle of Hydra in their twenties. Both were seeking escape, drawn together by their troubles, growing passionately in love whilst ensconced in the long summer evenings of a Mediterranean enclave taken over by ex-pat artists and writers. Broomfield cuts together archive footage with home recordings and photographs from Hydra in the 1960s, interviewing former residents and friends of both Leonard and Marianne to build up a picture of their passionate, fragile association: one which lasted, famously, until Marianne’s death in 2016.
The film achieves a number of things simultaneously, operating as a rough biography of Cohen’s artistic career, providing crucial insight into Marianne’s life both with and without her famous lover, and also looking at the peculiar community of Hydra itself: seeing, in that small island, a small microcosm of how the optimism and spirit of exploration that came so readily in the 1960s had less desirable repercussions for some of its inhabitants in later life.
It’s a mesmerising watch for fans of Cohen’s music, a fitting portrait sewn artfully together, and given a greater intimacy by dint of the fact Broomfield himself spent time in Hydra in his twenties and befriended Marianne whilst there. The only glaring absence is the lack of commentary from Cohen himself on their relationship. Limited only to those interviews the (notoriously private) songwriter gave whilst alive, there’s less room for investigation than might be hoped for, but that doesn’t stop Marianne & Leonard from being a compelling look at the romance which inspired an iconic song of love and longing.
Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love is in UK cinemas Friday. marianneandleonard.co.uk