By Robert Moyes
Monday Magazine film reviewer
Leonard Cohen, equally celebrated as a poet, singer-songwriter, and ladies man, comes delightfully back to life in the documentary Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love.
Although it covers most of Cohen’s storied career the focus is on a remarkable idyll that started in 1960 when a then-unknown Cohen became part of an artsy bohemian colony on the Greek island of Hydra. The permissive, hedonistic culture nurtured Cohen’s creativity – as did a gorgeous Norwegian blonde named Marianne Ihlen, who became his adoring and submissive muse. And when the eight-year relationship eventually stuttered to a halt, she was left with bittersweet memories … and “So Long, Marianne,” a masterly breakup song from the artist who was, as he confessed, “always leaving.”
Cohen wasn’t afraid of commitment so much as utterly incapable of offering it. This becomes clear at various moments in Words of Love, but never more entertainingly than when fellow poet and Cohen mentor Irving Layton makes an appearance, via an interview with his ex-wife. She was married to the famously philandering poet for 20 years, and comes across as smart, wry, and surprisingly forgiving as she makes insightful comments about the occasional joys and frequent heartaches of being in love with an artist whose only loyalty is to his muse.
Words of Love is made by documentarian Nick Broomfield (Kurt & Courtney, Whitney: Can I Be Me), who has special insight into all this, having been a minor member of the Hydra expat colony – and a minor lover of Marianne. The film includes never-before-seen footage by Broomfield and renowned filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker: there’s candid shots of people swimming in the azure Aegean or hanging out in rustic bars, as well as scenes from Cohen’s later years as a globe-trotting musical icon.
From performing in British mental institutes (Cohen’s much-loved mother had spent time in an institution for depression) to thrilling crowds on an infamous European tour where the whole band was stoned on acid for a month, there is lots here to delight fans of Cohen the performer. There are also sequences of the several years that Cohen spent sequestered in a Zen monastery in California, and the shocking story of how Cohen’s manager looted $5 million – thus sending a penniless Cohen back on tour, a late-in-life triumph that proved rich in fan love and even richer in box office.
There is much to savour in this poignant and engrossing film, which offers abundant charm and more than a few surprises.
Stars: Leonard Cohen, Marianne Ihlen, Judy Collins
Director: Nick Broomfield
Showtimes coming up: Vic Theatre, Aug. 19 @5:30 p.m., Aug. 20, 7:45 p.m.; Cinecenta at UVic, Aug. 28-31, 7 and 9:10 p.m.
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