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They'll Always Have Hydra

Leonard Cohen’s life and career get the full Nick Broomfield in Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love.

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The never-ending procession of film profiles of deceased pop music stars continues with one of the stronger entries, Nick Broomfield's Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love. Broomfield's documentary rates higher than most because his subject is inherently more interesting than most. The late singer-songwriter-poet-novelist Leonard Cohen (1934-2016), notorious for the pithy mournfulness of his dirges and ditties, turns out to have been a kind of intellectual swinger, plagued by permanent guilt and doubt yet primed for sensual adventure.

The Marianne of the film's title is Marianne Ihlen, a young Norwegian woman that Cohen met on the Greek island of Hydra in 1960. In those days, evidently only the most dedicated international wanderers had discovered the Aegean islands. The Canadian Cohen traveled to Hydra's budding artists' colony on literary prize money and immediately fell in love with the cheerful blond free spirit — as described in home movies and voiceover recordings by both Cohen and Ihlen. "I was his Greek muse who sat at his feet," remembers Ihlen. Intrigued by "the golden sun-kissed people" on the island and the quiet environment conducive to his writing, Cohen spent much of the 1960s on Hydra with Ihlen and her young son, Axel.

The expats used drugs as a creative social lubricant. Cohen was on speed at the time (showing that he seriously misconstrued the islands) while Marianne favored LSD. Meth, acid (including a concoction known as "Desert Dust"), Mandrax (a British equivalent of Quaalude), and Retsina were the chosen cocktails, and sex was usually the main course. Filmmaker Broomfield admits in voiceover that he was one of Ihlen's many lovers in addition to Cohen. "There was so much freedom there that people went too far with it," says anthropologist Helle Goldman, who spent her childhood on Hydra.

Nevertheless, Cohen managed to write his controversial novel Beautiful Losers there — it didn't sell, and he suffered a nervous breakdown soon afterward. But he also began putting his poetry to music, and when his love song "Suzanne" broke out in a cover by Judy Collins, Cohen suddenly became a sought-after performer. After that, he spent most of his time on tour and in the studio while Marianne waited patiently for him on the island.

Broomfield, whose profiles of Kurt Cobain, Aileen Wuornos, Tupac Shakur, Lily Tomlin, Sarah Palin, and Heidi Fleiss have made his filmography a cabinet of cultural curiosities, bases his new doc on Cohen and Marianne's lifelong romance, but it's really Cohen's show. Described by one acquaintance as "the poet of quasi-depressed women of the era," Cohen and his brand of tragically romantic introspection attracted legions of upscale groupies, accompanied by legendary pharmaceutical exploits. "So Long, Marianne" and "Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye" were dedicated to Ihlen, with Janis Joplin (the subject of "Chelsea Hotel No. 2") and various girlfriends sharing "muse" credits as his career progressed. If Cohen's one-night stands ever showed up in one place, there wouldn't be enough room on Hydra for them all.

Juicy tales of excess intrude into the portrait of the artist. Session guitarist Ron Cornelius, record producers John Simon and John Lissauer, veteran Hydra expat Don Lowe, and Broomfield himself all contribute eyewitness accounts of Cohen's exploits, as well as an account of his volunteer performances in mental hospitals. The exhausted Cohen capped his "ladies' man" period by checking into the Mount Baldy Zen Center in Southern California for six years of meditation. When he emerged he discovered his business manager had embezzled $5 million from him, necessitating his return — croaking vocals and all — to the concert stage to support himself. At the age of 70, he became one of the top ten grossing touring acts in the business, singing "Hallelujah" to the faithful.

The doc ties it all up in a neat, sorrowful little package by picturing Marianne, at age 81 in 2016, on her deathbed in Oslo, where she receives Cohen's final love letter. The sad legacy of Hydra survivors includes drug troubles, alcoholism, ruined relationships, emotional breakdowns, and institutionalizations — more than enough raw material for Cohen's saddest songs. His demise followed hers three months later. Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love, despite Broomfield's first-person onscreen footnotes, evokes the Cohen mystique succinctly for what it was — in the words of his childhood Montreal friend Nancy Bacal, a "journey into the dark." 

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