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Review: Documentary covers poet, his muse, the music they made

  • COURTESY KEW MEDIA GROUP

    Marianne Ihlen’s relationship with singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen is the subject of the documentary “Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love.”

“MARIANNE & LEONARD: WORDS OF LOVE”

****

(R, 1:42)

When you go to see a documentary film by Nick Broomfield, you are likely to see Nick Broomfield himself. His mode of inquiry, whether he’s examining murderers, politicians or rock stars (subjects of his previous pictures include Aileen Wuornos, Sarah Palin, Courtney Love and Kurt Cobain), always insists on exposing the inquiry itself. And like Michael Moore, Broomfield has the personality to make his on-screen presence interesting even if you’re not keen on metadocumentary.

His new picture, “Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love,” is about the enduring love between the Canadian singer-songwriter and poet Leonard Cohen and Marianne Ihlen, the Norwegian woman he met on the Greek island of Hydra in the early 1960s. It’s a story that is at once simple and threaded with startling complexities. Its emotional entanglements and narrative twists can seem the stuff of fiction. They shed sometimes discomfiting light on the expansions and excesses of the 1960s and ’70s counterculture that its main players helped to define.

Before seeing the movie I wondered just how Broomfield would insinuate himself into its story. As it happens, he did not have to insinuate at all; he’s a part of it. In the late 1960s he, too, met Marianne Ihlen in Hydra, and became close to her. Ihlen is known to the world as Cohen’s muse; she inspired one of his most anthemic and sad songs, “So Long Marianne,” which he first recorded in 1967. She was an inspiration to Broomfield as well, encouraging his film work.

Small world, right? While Broomfield’s films often take a sardonic, close-to-cynical tone, “Marianne & Leonard” is admiring, affectionate and a little awe-struck. Cohen was a lauded poet when he left Montreal for Greece, where he spent years working on a novel, “Beautiful Losers,” whose critical lambasting almost ruined his reputation. Ihlen looked after him in Hydra, made art of her own, and raised a son from a previous relationship. Cohen started toying with music. In New York, he sought out the singer Judy Collins, told her “I can’t sing, I can’t play guitar,” and then played the song “Suzanne” for her.

Collins recounts this in the film in new footage, and she still has an air of disbelief about the world Cohen unfolded for her in that song. She then brought him out into her world.

And it was off to the races. The erotic and pharmaceutical excesses of the ’60s provided Cohen with a playpen from which he fended off depression (not always successfully). The movie doesn’t shy away from the tragedies that befell Ihlen and her circle.

Ihlen and Leonard knew the importance of giving and receiving love, but they sometimes failed to recognize the responsibility inherent in that. The movie’s final section features the now-famous note Cohen sent to his old lover as she lay dying in Norway, his words an exemplar of plain profundity. It also quotes from one of Cohen’s Hydra poems: “I pray that loving memory/exists for them too/the precious ones I overthrew/for an education in the world.” This remarkable movie understands the exact place from which these brooding words came.

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