Those looking for a dedicated Leonard Cohen documentary might initially be frustrated by Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love.
Director Nick Broomfield (Kurt & Courtney; Biggie and Tupac) appears to make his intentions clear in the film’s title. The best documentaries and biopics often focus on one aspect of a subject’s story rather than misguidedly attempt to cover an entire career or life in two hours.
Cohen’s story cannot be told without acknowledging the significant role that Marianne Ihlen played in that narrative. Perhaps the most romantic notion of art is the idea of the muse, the person who inspired the artist to create his or her great work.
Ihlen undoubtedly buoyed Cohen’s career, to which he pays tribute in the song “So Long, Marianne.” But the support was literal, in addition to creative. Cohen embodied the “struggling artist” while living on the Greek island of Hydra, where his romance with Ihlen began. (At the very least, a compelling tourist video for Hydra could be cut from Broomfield’s footage.)
Cohen was a successful poet then, but his novels were poorly received. He subsequently turned his creative energy toward writing songs. Judy Collins was among those who benefited from Cohen’s songwriting, and she convinced him to give performing a try. His career was never the same, nor was the life he had with Ihlen. The deterioration of their relationship was the greatest casualty of Cohen’s success and it’s depicted in dispiriting detail. As Ihlen’s friend and one-time lover, Broomfield was witness to much of the downfall. Without the footage he shot then, this film wouldn’t have been possible.
Unfortunately, Broomfield falls into familiar biopic territory to tell the rest of Cohen’s story. The folk singer became a late-’60s superstar. Neither his success nor the free love era could match the idyllic life he once shared with Ihlen and her son on Hydra. Broomfield tries not to follow a cliché, forget-where-you-came-from path, and Cohen didn’t forget that he owed his fame to Ihlen. But as she becomes less prominent in his life, the film understandably becomes more about Cohen and turns into the conventional documentary that Broomfield presumably wanted to avoid.
As a result, the woman presented as the main character of the story is nearly reduced to an afterthought. Maybe Broomfield made this film to prevent that from happening, yet it feels as if he used his friend as entry to the story he preferred to tell.
Now Playing at Grail Moviehouse