Director Nick Broomfield has a habit of inserting himself into his movies, but this time he’s both a character and an inquisitor as he reflects upon two lives that shaped his path. His personal inquiries drive docs like Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer, Kurt & Courtney, Biggie & Tupac, and Tales of the Grim Sleeper. His latest film, Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love is his most personal film yet and it benefits from his ability to open himself up to enter his subjects.
Words of Love chronicles the long relationship between the late Leonard Cohen and his Norwegian muse, also recently passed, Marianne Ihlen, which began in 1960 on the Greek island of Hydra and spanned decades, crossed continents, and inspired generations. She’s the girl Cohen sings “so long” to as well as many other musings.
Broomfield, who also had a relationship with Ihlen and made his first documentary on her advice, looks at the romance of the poet and his muse with objectivity and poetic grace. He’s the Nick Carraway to Cohen’s Jay Gatsby and Ihlen’s Daisy Buchanan as he watches from an inquisitive distance.
The doc features extraordinary footage of Cohen and Ihlen that Broomfield shot with D.A. Pennebaker (Don’t Look Back) over the summers in Hydra. This previously unseen material is a valuable archive of Cohen’s career as he flourished on the arty island with Ihlen as his inspiration. Both Cohen and Ihlen’s voices appear in archival interviews atop the footage, as they passed away in 2016 just three months apart, while Broomfield offers new interviews with their surviving friends and peers.
This intimate glimpse into the creative process reflects on the poet’s ability to draw inspiration from a muse, but also stifle her in the service of his art. The doc offers stories of times good and bad as Cohen wrote songs like “Bird on a Wire” and “So Long, Marianne” while under her wing, but then was unfair to her own aspirations and responsibilities. Broomfield strikes a personal chord when he tells how the instability of Cohen and Ihlen’s on-again/off-again relationship had long-term mental health consequences for Ihlen’s son, Axel, who becomes the film’s tragic figure.
Broomfield explains how Ihlen eventually left Hydra, moved home and settled while Cohen skyrocketed to fame. The film looks at Cohen’s success in the post-Marianne years as he expanded his audience by experimenting with musical styles. Broomfield presents an extensive range of concert footage that captures the deep, gravelly romanticism of Cohen’s voice.
An extended sequence on “Hallelujah” takes audiences to the peak of Cohen’s ability to craft success through words of love. John Lissauer, who produced the record for Cohen, recalls how Columbia executives feared “Hallelujah” would ruin Cohen and says the label terminated him immediately upon hearing the song. Despite the song being one of the industry’s biggest successes, Lissauer says the label’s unexpected dislike for “Hallelujah” inspired Cohen’s retreats to Mt. Baldy monastery for extended periods of self-reflection.
As Cohen’s fortune humbles him in later years, Broomfield returns him to Ihlen. The film provides intimate access to Ihlen’s deathbed where she receives a letter from Cohen that thanks her for the endless love and inspiration. Broomfield, surprisingly, doesn’t comment on the scene. He steps back, lets the words of love hang in the air, and invites audiences to appreciate a life they knew mostly through songs.