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Words of Love

The beauty of Leonard Cohen's words is superbly captured in the documentary.


Both Leonard Cohen and myself are agreed on one point; neither of us like the sound of his singing voice. His words, though, are a different matter, and their beauty are superbly captured in the documentary, Marianne and Leonard.

Thankfully, this film is not just a reflection of the love between the two protagonists, but is also a visit into the scabrous, nefarious, workings of the record industry, via unsigned contracts, guns and copious amounts of drugs. All fairly routine stuff, then, but deftly edited to keep returning to the couple at the heart of the affair. Director Nick Broomfield puts this documentary together with the tenderness of a former friend and lover, which he was to Marianne.

Desperate to escape from what he found to be the suffocating atmosphere of his birthplace of Montreal, Cohen travelled to the Greek island of Hydra (pronounced 'Hedra') and came across Marianne Jensen (later Ihlen) and her son, Axel. She soon became his muse and lover.

Whilst the film follows Cohen’s career, via mental institutions and monasteries such as the appropriately titled Mt Baldy Zen Center, Marianne is just as worthy of her screen time, as her nurturing and support acted not just as a key to unlocking Cohen’s potential, but the potential of several others as well.

The early years of writing, drinking and lovemaking slipped into the routine of six months on Hydra and six in America or Europe for Cohen, as his talents were further fanned by artists such as Judy Collins. Slowly, the ratio became 4:8 in favour of America, and the long distance love became frayed, but Cohen could not let go.

A threatening darkness lurks in the background all the while. The seemingly hippy mantra of “Tune in, turn on and drop out” on the sun-kissed island is too good to be true, and a high price seems to have been paid by people who became involved with Leonard. That’s not because of anything he does directly, but the wake he trails behind. How can the producer of his most copied song, 'Hallelujah', be the best producer in the world in the morning, then be out of the music industry in the afternoon?

All the while, as Marianne was having to deal with her son’s illness, Cohen soothed his libidinous intentions. For anyone expecting the film to focus equally on Marianne, this is a disappointment leaving many questions unanswered. It is very much a Cohen biography.

Yet, like a boomerang, Cohen always returned to Marianne. As she lay dying of leukaemia, she asked an old friend to pass a message to Leonard and to bring a camera to her bedside. The response from Leonard came within two hours and is a thing of beauty worthy of the film itself.

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