Will we ever stop sifting through our musical past? If the recent flood of nostalgic movies is any indication (whether documentaries or tuneful biopics such as “Rocketman” and “Bohemian Rhapsody”), don’t hold your breath.
Surely the easiest way to get a documentary released is to profile a musical giant. But “Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love” is different from the others. Not only does this one have a very specific focus, it also boasts a filmmaker with an intimate view of the subject.
You know Leonard: It’s Leonard Cohen, the Canadian bard whose gravelly voice and poetic lyrics made songs like “Suzanne” and “Sisters of Mercy” into instant classics. He died in 2016, having seen his heart-rending song “Hallelujah” become one of the most frequently performed numbers of the 21st century.
You don’t know Marianne — but then again you do, if you know Cohen’s songs. Marianne Ihlen was a Norwegian woman, with small son in tow, who met Cohen on the Greek island of Hydra at the dawn of the 1960s. They maintained a relationship for many years, and Marianne inspired many of his songs, including “So Long, Marianne,” from his first album.
In a farewell widely reported at the time, Cohen sent a note to Marianne when she was on her deathbed, a note that began with the words, “I’m just a little behind you, close enough to take your hand.” Cohen died three months later.
This relationship is examined by the well-known documentarian Nick Broomfield, whose past subjects include the serial killer Aileen Wuornos and the marriage of Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love.
Broomfield reveals within the first few minutes of the film that he is one of Marianne’s former lovers, having encountered her in Hydra during the 1960s. So forget about objectivity, if that were ever a goal in this loving tribute.
“Marianne & Leonard” has some remarkable footage from Hydra in the ’60s, along with expected material on Cohen’s subsequent celebrity. The movie is at its best in painting a picture of this Greek artists’ colony, which boasted a bohemian spirit but — at least in Broomfield’s telling — left lasting damage on its inhabitants.
Broomfield doesn’t always know what to emphasize after that; we hit Cohen’s career highlights, and his retreat into a Buddhist monastery in the 1990s. The stories are undeniably arresting: his commitment to playing shows in psychiatric hospitals, his sexual adventures with an army of women, his ability to play many nights in a row while tripping on LSD.
He kept in regular touch with Marianne through those years. She emerges as a kind of super-muse, although one would like to know more about her beyond that. Broomfield’s ideas on that score might be a little retrograde.
There’s not a huge amount of music; the 2005 doc “Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man” does a better job with the songbook. But there’s something powerful here about certain kinds of 1960s dreams and realities, and how emotional bonds can survive the decades—and how to “cry and laugh about it all again,” as his song to Marianne put it.
“Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love” (3 stars)
An intimate documentary about Leonard Cohen and his long-standing relationship with Marianne Ihlen, the Norwegian woman who inspired some of his best-known songs. Director Nick Broomfield — one of Marianne’s former loves himself — catches something about 1960s dreams and realities in this loving portrait.
Rating: R, for language
Opening Friday: Pacific Place