Nick Broomfield on Marianne & Leonard: 'I wasn't doing a music film, I was doing a love story'

Nick Broomfield on Marianne & Leonard: 'I wasn't doing a music film, I was doing a love story'

Veteran British documentarian discusses his latest project, which explores the love story between Leonard Cohen and muse Marianne Ihlen

Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love documents the relationship between Leonard Cohen and his Norwegian muse, Marianne Ihlen, their love having begun on the idyllic Greek island of Hydra in the early 1960s, as part of a bohemian community of artists from multiple fields. Director Nick Broomfield, with the aid of footage from fellow documentarian D.A. Pennebaker that was shot during that period, explores their connection from those early days on the island to how it evolved when Leonard went on to become a successful musician. Theirs was a love story that would continue for the rest of their lives, albeit not in a form where they were in any sort of committed relationship beyond that time on Hydra, with the pair dying three months apart in 2016.

Broomfield is known for being more present in his works than many other documentarians tend to be. In the case of Words of Love, there's a particularly good reason for it. In 1968, a young Broomfield, then aged 20, went to Hydra and met and formed his own bond with Ihlen, who first introduced him to Cohen's music and also encouraged him to make his first film.

'I decided I wanted to do it,' says Broomfield of the documentary, 'because both these people were very influential to me and when they both died within three months of each other, I just wanted to get back in touch with that part of my life. Sometimes in life, you realise you've left a lot behind. You get a career and a lot of people that are very important to you at a particular time get left behind. Not through any kind of negligence, just because you don't reflect very much.

'There were a lot of people I knew on Hydra from when I went there in 1968 that I'd lost touch with one way or another, so it was also an opportunity to reconnect with a lot of people that I wanted to see again. Time is galloping, people are changing, accidents happen. And it made me very mindful of that kind of thing, which I'm very grateful for, really.'

The film explores Ihlen and her story, alongside some other interesting figures related to that bohemian social circle on Hydra, with some time also spent on the highs and lows of Cohen's career as an artist. Broomfield, however, is keen to emphasise that this is not a music documentary: 'We didn't have the permission of the [Cohen] estate, but I wasn't doing a music film anyway. I was doing a love story. And so, the music in the film is mainly illustrative of that relationship and his life.'

He adds that there are people in the know 'who've seen the film and were pleased that it wasn't a hagiography, that there were the blemishes as well. I think there's been a temptation to paint Leonard, in particular, as a saint. I don't think he in any way ever saw himself as a saint. Indeed, the strength of so much of his work is about his blemishes and his shortcomings and his vulnerabilities and his sadness, often done with a great deal of humour. I think that's why so many people relate to his work so strongly.'

Selected release from Fri 26 Jul.

Marianne & Leonard: Words Of Love

  • 4 stars
  • 2019
  • USA
  • 1h 42min
  • 12A
  • Directed by: Nick Broomfield

Documentary about the love affair between Leonard Cohen and Marianne Ihlen, and how their 1960s Greek idyll helped turn him into the musician he became. It’s bittersweet but not without a darker side, noting the casualties of the time, and there’s a mixture of archive material with fresh interviews. A poignant elegy for…

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