Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Cohen still shines through uncompromising doc

British documentarian Nick Broomfield’s latest film Marianne & Leonard Words of Love (at the Landmark Main in Royal Oak and Michigan Theatre in Ann Arbor) explores perhaps the strongest theme in all of Leonard Cohen’s music and poetry – his love affair with his one-time lover Marianne Ihlen. After all, such iconic Cohen songs as "So Long, Marianne", "Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye" and "Bird on the Wire” all in some way are about Cohen and Ihlen’s relationship. I didn’t know what to expect from the film, given that Cohen and Ihlen spent most of their time together on the Greek island of Hydra in the early 1960s. That was a long time ago after all and how much actual film footage from that period would still be available? In fact there’s a fair amount. This of course was before Cohen ascended into the pop or at least countercultural literary limelight in the mid to late 1960s. And after that time there’s plenty of archival film of the modern gravelly-but-oh-so-romantically-and-introspectively-voiced bard who became a beloved figure in the folk, rock and pop world. While the woman Marianne is obviously central to the film in reality the film is more about Cohen vis-s-vis his relationship with Marianne and any number of other unnamed lovers, but also with Suzanne, inspiration for the equally iconic song of the same name. We learn that as the 1960s went on Cohen, emblematic of the spirit of the time, was a fully indulgent participant in free love and the sexual revolution, and with his looks and poetic charm, a magnet for innumerable women. But he always had to remain free and this also caused stresses on his relationship with Marianne, about whom on stage he joked that he kept spending fewer years, months, weeks and then days with as the years went by. To his credit filmmaker Broomfield doesn’t ignore some of the negative repercussions from the era and Cohen’s relationships. Marianne’s son Axel ended up in mental institutions and there were deep psychological stresses on the British family who adopted Cohen on Hydra including a suicide. Drugs, including widespread use of LSD, were psychologically and physically harmful on the people around Cohen.   Nevertheless, showing this downside doesn’t impede the film’s overall narrative of Cohen’s greatness through the artist’s significant life chapters – as poet, novelist, singer (having first to be coaxed to sing on stage by Judy Collins), Buddhist monk and then the  “I’m Your Man” fedora-wearing elder folk-rock superstar in the 1990s through 2000s. This is a fascinating movie from the first moment to the last.

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