Two months ago we welcomed the 1960s pop-rock themed Echo in the Canyon and now we’re getting a more intimate piece from that era. Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love is a love letter to folk rock legend Leonard Cohen and his one-time girlfriend, and long-time muse, Marianne Ihlen.
The documentary also asks, but doesn’t necessarily answer, why the artist is almost always incapable of being in a functioning, conventional relationship with his muse. Many famous musicians have exes who are nearly just as famous in their own right. Not only the usual names like Pattie Boyd, Jane Asher, Edie Sedgwick and Rosanna Arquette come to mind, but also Suze Rotolo, Jeannie Franklyn and of course, Marianne.
Leonard and Marianne’s history begins on the Greek island of Hydra in 1960, right after the former left his native Canada and the latter her Norwegian homeland. The period is before the hippies and the sexual revolution, but this tiny island already has its own liberated environment where casual flings and drug experimentation are the norm.
For a six-year period, Leonard and Marianne have an idyllic romance until Leonard has to accept that he’s not fated to be a writer and switches his focus to music. But to be a singer-songwriter in the mid-1960s, he has to be back home in Montreal and New York. Marianne eventually becomes the subject of his classic song “So Long, Marianne.”
Filmmaker Nick Broomfield’s documentary touches on both Leonard and Marianne’s struggle to be monogamous, especially Leonard once he finds success with his songs and his fans. We get commentary from some of their close friends, including fellow folk artists Judy Collins and Julie Felix, who helped Leonard overcome his stage fright and be his own front man.
Broomfield’s feature has a bit of a romanticized tone, or as romanticized as you can with a man who spent decades with many, many women. This is partly because Broomfield himself has a connection to the couple, as he was a former flame of Marianne after Leonard left.
The best of those featured in the documentary is Aviva Layton, whose husband was a close friend of Leonard, and who is blunt in her comments. She calls out “free love” and “flower power” as sounding good in theory, but in execution causing a lot of broken relationships and producing dysfunctional children. She was specifically referring to Marianne’s young son Axel from her first marriage, who was inadvertently dragged along through all his mother’s affairs.
As a straightforward documentary, Marianne & Leonard doesn’t really deliver much for the non-fan and is primarily for those interested in the musician or the time period of pop culture. But still, it asks the ever relevant question of why so many talented people have such problematic personal lives.
Megan Bianco is a Southern California-based movie reviewer and content writer with a degree from California State University Northridge.