NEW YORK — In November 2016 music and poetry fans the world over mourned the passing of the legendarily out-of-time Jewish-Canadian balladeer. But just a few months earlier, at the passing of a Norwegian woman named Marianne Ihlen, the world swooned at the release of a letter Cohen had written to his old lover on her deathbed. “I’m just a little behind you, close enough to take your hand.”
Perhaps you know Cohen, currently the subject of a major exhibit at New York’s Jewish Museum, from his books of poetry, or maybe a college crush played one of his early folk records. Maybe the 1980s Europop disco tracks got you hooked, or maybe you saw a concert in his post-Buddhist monastery period, after a manager embezzled all his money and he went back on the road as a romantic elder statesman/mystical bard/wandering Jew in a tipped fedora with an enormous backing band. In any case, there’s a good chance you’ve encountered the work of the late troubadour who went from Montreal Jewish day schools to become a world sensation.
Documentarian Nick Broomfield’s new film, “Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love” is a rumination on the Leonard Cohen origin story, the facts of which are so perfect they sound like lines from a Leonard Cohen song: After achieving a mild degree of success with two books of poetry in the late 1950s and very early 60s, Cohen took his meager earnings and wandered around Greece. He took a boat to the island of Hydra, stepped off and knew that he would stay.
Hydra called to him as locations of Greek myth often do, and what he found there was a community of artists and bohemians living among the fisherman and townspeople. With just a small bit of money one could live in relative ease under the sun and drink wine and paint or write or just live. One could also fall in love, as was the case when Cohen met a newly divorced 25-year-old from Norway named Marianne Ihlen.
Ihlen became Cohen’s muse, aiding him as he feverishly typed out his books in the hot sun. In the evenings they took drugs and caroused as only 1960s drop-outs could. When Cohen’s novel “Beautiful Losers” was poorly received he went back to Montreal, then New York, and, thanks to a strange set of circumstances, emerged as a songwriter.
His composition “Suzanne” became a hit for Judy Collins and, after dragging his feet, he became a performer himself. While hardly an instant superstar, his brokenhearted observations and world-weary, flat vocalizations instantly connected with a certain type of bookish, romantic fan.
As his star rose in North America and Europe, Marianne maintained their home in Hydra with her son from a previous marriage, Axel. Though never married, their relationship was the rock of his early career. But over time even their period-appropriate openness became strained, and life on Hydra became difficult and even dangerous for many of the ex-pats. Cohen’s masterpiece “So Long, Marianne” announced their separation, although it didn’t really stick. They stayed entwined even as Cohen sired children with another woman.
Director Broomfield details their romance from that first step off the boat to their deaths only months apart, and he does it in a way that only he can. As it happens, he was a young college graduate from Cardiff when he visited Hydra at age 20, entering a relationship with Marianne when she was 13 years his senior.
The spell of Hydra is at the heart of this documentary, as is a frankness about its two subjects. Though we may consider Leonard Cohen to be cerebral and enlightened, he partied like any other rock star in the 1970s. (There’s a sequence of him blitzed out of his mind on LSD during a concert in Jerusalem, where he feels compelled for some reason to go backstage and shave in the middle of a performance.) If you only know Leonard Cohen from his music, this documentary is eye-opening, but the biography complements his work when you consider its grand and, at times, fatalistic scope.
Nick Broomfield spoke to TOI via phone from Los Angeles, an edited transcript of which is below.
I’ve listened to Leonard Cohen’s albums for years but I guess there was a lot about him I did not know. Everything about the island of Hydra sounds too good to be true, a fantasy world out of one of his songs that can fulfill your dreams but also drain your soul.
Leonard said, “after you’ve lived on Hydra you can’t live anywhere else. Including Hydra.”
It’s such a magical place. But also a difficult place. It requires discipline to provide structure where you can survive there.
Your film gets into the mindset of the expatriates living there at the time. What did the natives think of all the Brits, Canadians, Scandinavian artists who up all night taking acid and having affairs? Was there any friction?
They all became close, really. Certainly someone like Leonard spent a great deal of time at the monasteries on the island. Spending time with the fishermen, getting to the culture. There was acceptance on behalf of the islanders. But there would be disagreements from time to time.
The foreigners would be the ones to show reluctance about, say, new buildings or roads being built. There’s still only mules there. Some of the local Greeks wanted to have cars on certain parts of the island, to develop it more into a holiday resort. But of course, the foreigners were there because they loved the ancient feel of the island, that there were no cars. So there was that kind of conflict. They wanted to bring in plastic tables and the foreigners were opposed to it.
If “Beautiful Losers” had been more of a critical and commercial success would Leonard and Marianne’s relationship have lasted longer? Would he have stayed on the island? Do you think, maybe, he would never have gotten into music and remained an author?
I think that is possible. Leonard and [his early teacher and mentor] Irving Layton tried to do a television series in Canada, but it was unsuccessful. There was a need to generate more income, which didn’t really work. I do think if any of those projects were more successful he wouldn’t have had that pressure sing and start writing songs.
In a way we can thank the lack of success for those great records.
Irving Layton’s widow Aviva mentions in your film that Layton and Cohen really bonded because they were Jewish, but she leaves it at that.
Leonard was very influenced by his grandfather, who was Talmudic scholar. He lived in his house. Leonard’s father died rather young, but there was this influential Jewish scholar there, who made quite an impression. Leonard was very well read in Jewish scriptures, and I think it had a massive influence on his work.
Later in life he made religion part of his daily practice, but was he observant during those years on Hydra? Was he keeping the Sabbath while living with a Norwegian woman on a Greek island far from the eyes of his family?
I don’t believe he was practicing in the traditional sense, but I think he was fundamentally influenced by Jewish writing and the holy books he read. He became more connected to the Jewish faith later in his life, and it was certainly immensely important to him to procreate with a Jewish woman. I believe he came from a strict Jewish family who were influential with the synagogues of Montreal, so it was a big part of his growing up. On Hydra, I don’t even know if there was a synagogue at all.
Your film includes amazing footage of his tours of the late 1960s and early 1970s. I tend to think of Leonard Cohen as a very serious man, a writer of very noble, poignant work. But as your film shows, he’s carousing like any rock star of the time. He’s have fit in with the Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin, but in a slightly classier way.
For those early tours he believed in “happenings.” He needed this incredible connection with the audience. Later on he rehearsed and rehearsed and was super disciplined. Every night was precisely the same with only the smallest bit of improvisation. If he would get down on one knee in a song, it was literally at the same phrase of the song each night. In those early says, though, he was more open to new experiences every night, but I don’t know how long anyone can keep that up.
In the later footage, after his comeback, there definitely is a bit of a showman, with the cocked hat and everything. It’s almost a little hammy.
He really started enjoying touring and performing in his later years. He didn’t enjoy it earlier on. He was full of self-doubt and depression. After he left the monastery that all lifted. He liked it, and carried on far longer than he needed to, once he’d made back his money.
Watching the film, your narrator’s voice comes in and it’s a bit of a shock. We don’t expect the filmmaker to be so personally involved with this story, to have had an intimate relationship with one of the subjects. But it’s ambiguous if you yourself ever met Leonard.
I did meet Leonard. A few times, but not in Hydra, I first met him in Los Angeles. He wasn’t there when I met Marianne, he was in New York. But I met him years later, at a friend’s dinner. We mainly spoke about Axel.
You both dated the same woman. Was it an awkward conversation?
No, it was pleasant. I had just seen Marianne in Oslo, and he asked about Axel [who he helped raise on Hydra.] He was always very concerned about Axel’s welfare. Though Axel’s development was troubled, it was still a pleasant conversation.
‘Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love’ is in North American theaters July 5.