The old idea of an artist having a ‘muse’, traditionally implies a male artist being inspired by a beautiful woman. The assumed gender politics of this might be even more ingrained if the artist is subject to all the temptations of a rock and roll lifestyle.
Nick Broomfield’s (Kurt and Courtney, Whitney: Can I Ne Me) gentle and celebratory documentary about Leonard Cohen and his sometime girlfriend Marianne Ihlen is subtitled words of love.
Broomfield has a personal connection of his own. As a young man in the hippyish 1960s, he travelled through Greece. In particular, he spent time on the idyllic island of Hydra where he met, and briefly fell for, Marianne. She was a sun-bleached blonde Norwegian whose round, welcoming face and easy manner attracted many men. The most famous of these was the young Canadian Jewish poet, Leonard Cohen.
It seemed that more or less everyone on the island was either taking drugs or sleeping with each other, or probably both. At least that is the way that those alive today remember it – and there are plenty of relations and old friends happy to be talking heads and provide telling little anecdotes.
Marianne and Leonard were a golden couple in that scene, and it is obvious from the early footage that they were having a lovely time. If that was all there was to it, then the film wouldn’t have much edge or narrative arc.
As many would already know, the initially shy poet was persuaded that he could sing and he went on to become, well, Leonard Cohen.
For several decades he was the rock poet of choice for so many, and ranks with Dylan, Paul Simon and Neil Young as one of the great greatest singer songwriters of the second half of the twentieth century.
The film doesn’t contain any sustained concert footage and it resists the temptation to play ‘So Long Marianne’ as an endless backdrop. Instead, the focus is very much on their love story. They both died fairly recently (their deaths being separated by only three months) and, though they split decades ago, many here testify that she was his greatest love.
There are darker or unresolved areas of course. Marianne’s son Axel (by another relationship) was a rock casualty by default in a way. Also, as already implied, the outcomes of the era of so-called ‘free love’ was structurally unequal.
Leonard resisted bourgeois conventions of marriage and family. Artists have done this for centuries, but the freewheeling promiscuity and no-strings lifestyle he was able to escape to were still built on the not-coincidental inequalities that served the rock gods so much more than the women in their lives.