Documentarian Nick Broomfield is the auteur of the dead musician. He’s the conspiracy-minded chronicler of the pop visionary taken too soon, whose title subjects may or may not be separated by ampersands.
Though he has enjoyed a long and influential career in Direct Cinema dating back to the early ’70s, he first appeared on my radar with 1998’s Kurt & Courtney, a shoe-leather investigation into the premature demise of Kurt Cobain that led Nirvana fans toward the dubious but emotionally satisfying conclusion that his widow orchestrated the rock star’s murder and cover-up. Biggie & Tupac, released three years later, traded in equally circumstantial evidence in alleging Suge Knight’s role in spearheading the murders of the seminal rappers.
But despite the connections of its title, Broomfield’s latest effort, Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love, isn’t the third entry in some loose trilogy of speculative autopsies. There are no dark accusations, no unsolved mysteries regarding the passing of 82-year-old Leonard Cohen in November 2016, or that of his lifelong muse, Marianne Ihlen, who succumbed to leukemia just three months earlier. This time, Broomfield’s investigation is of the love affair itself.
In the director’s telling, presented in a narrative that is sobering, thoughtful and for once above reproach, Cohen and Ihlen wrestled with a complicated coupling, an initial romance that rushed to the fore and then, owing to Cohen’s fame and polygamous tendencies, receded into the background, resurfacing in increasingly infrequent cameos. Framing their relationship as a through-line connecting the various dots of Cohen’s life and career, Marianne & Leonard is in some ways a visual companion piece to David Remnick’s essential New Yorker profile of Cohen, published less than a month before Cohen’s death, with both filmmaker and writer finding circular poignancy in the love poem Cohen wrote for Ihlen during her final bout with cancer.
Ihlen and Cohen met in 1960 on the Greek island of Hydra, where Ihlen lived, and their rapport was immediate. As Ihlen recalls it in an archival sound bite, when her eyes first met his, “I felt it throughout my whole body.” Cohen was by then a poet and would-be novelist, but Marianne would inspire his foray into songwriting. She was, most famously, the subject of his early hit “So Long, Marianne,” whose titular send-off indicated a kind of subconscious tell.
Like the bird on the wire, Cohen tried in his way to be free, which is to say unshackled in matters of the heart and in lower organs. In another well-chosen bit of archival audio, he shares his delight at living through the sexual revolution of the ’60s. By the accounts of several of Broomfield’s contemporary interviewees, Cohen relished his rock-star status, inviting countless women to smother him onstage and to fill his hotel rooms.
Part of the movie’s challenge is to reconcile this aspect of Cohen’s personality — the love-them-and-leave-them hedonism — with his intellectual support for the advancement of women in public life. A friend quotes him as saying, “I can’t wait until women take over,” even equating his outspokenness on this front to the #TimesUp movement.
Can someone be a feminist and a womanizer? Ask Anthony Weiner, perhaps. We’re not all one thing, and in avoiding the temptations of hagiography, Broomfield offers a thorny critique of Cohen, as a brilliant singer, songwriter and poet — even a woke individual — who could also be a rotten lover and, sometimes, a terrible human being.
Cohen would say things to Ihlen that would drive her to contemplate suicide. Because of his hurtful straying, his ever-present dalliances with other women, she once told an interviewer, “I wanted to put him in a cage, lock him up and throw away the key.” (Interestingly, as a 20-year-old emerging filmmaker, Broomfield himself had had an intimate relationship with Ihlen, which he discloses in a voice-over early in the movie. They remained acquaintances for decades, so it’s fair to say that Broomfield, in his assessment of Cohen’s treatment of Ihlen, had some skin in the game.)
Unlike the more reverent 2005 doc Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man, music is incidental to Marianne & Leonard, which was made without the assistance of Cohen’s estate. It’s deployed largely to illustrate personal peaks and valleys in the couple’s relationship. Broomfield also touches on key moments in Cohen’s career largely tangential to Ihlen — his recording of Various Positions, initially rejected by his record label despite birthing “Hallelujah;” his six-year sabbatical in a Buddhist monastery; the embezzlement of his fortune from his crooked manager, which would leave him broke and, to the joy of millions, back on tour for the first time in decades.
It’s all interesting, and worthy of a larger project. There’s enough drama in the life and times of Leonard Cohen to warrant a documentary as robust as HBO’s 240-minute Sinatra: All or Nothing At All. But in its 96 minutes, Marianne & Leonard moves with delicate chords and supple rhymes of an early Cohen ballad — ethereal but impactful, with a residue that lingers.
MARIANNE & LEONARD: WORDS OF LOVE. Director: Nick Broomfield; Distributor: Roadside Attractions; Rated R; Opens today at Downtown at the Gardens 16, Regal Shadowood and Cinemark Palace 20