The universe would be a little less colorful if it wasn’t for Marianne Ihlen, the person who inspired a young poet named Leonard Cohen to write. The story of Cohen finding his inspiration in a beautiful Norwegian, Ihlen, is usually the kind of stuff that would be written off as romantic fantasy. A struggling artist meets his muse with Hydra, as the location and the pervading hedonistic counterculture playing out around them. Though the romance is comparatively brief when measured against the 80-plus years they lived, the impression it made was forever memorialized.

Cohen’s lyrics to “Bird on the Wire” were inspired by Ihlen observing a bird sitting on the wire of a telephone pole. The inspiration didn’t stop there, most notably with the songs “So Long, Marianne” and “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye.” Director Nick Broomfield begins Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love explaining his small role in the tale of Cohen and Ihlen. As one of Ihlen’s former paramours in the free-wheeling ’60s, Broomfield was told of the lasting impression she and Cohen had on each other. From there we’re treated to fond remembrances that sound appropriately poetic with Ihlen recalling the first time they met at a shop as he stood in the doorway with sunlight behind him and the inevitability of their eyes meeting.

After Ihlen and her son moved in with Cohen, she supported his writerly pursuits. Before too long, Judy Collins recorded a few of Cohen’s songs, including “Bird on the Wire.” Cohen eventually overcame his stage fright and pursued a successful singing career. After eight years of an on-and-off relationship, they both went their separate ways with the romance forever imprinted in both their minds. Through photographs, home movie footage, and alternating audio clips recalling the whirlwind romance of drinking, playing, and lovemaking, we get to know them both as awkward beautiful souls who’ve lucked into each other.

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In the world of documentaries, you have folks like Broomfield whose personalities become part of the films they create. His filmography is vast and wide-ranging but his most popular are films focused on sensationalism or celebs, the most recent example being Whitney: Can I Be Me, a film I’ve yet to see for fear it may be another vampiric rundown of the more tabloid-ready aspects of Whitney Houston’s descent. There’s no denying that he’s good at what he does but, to this day, I still have flashbacks to films like Biggie & Tupac and Kurt & Courtney. In those films, like others he’s done, he goes sleuthing to find who killed Biggie Smalls, Tupac, and Kurt Cobian. Something about him inserting himself into the Biggie/Tupac story just feels gross while the theories he posits in Kurt & Courtney seemed pretty gross too.

I’m happy I went into this doc unaware of anything about the film except that it was about Leonard Cohen and a romance. For the Cohen faithful, it may just be yet another film focused on the man and his life. What I like about this (and other docs of the same ilk), is that this one focuses on a particular aspect of a public figure’s life rather than the career itself. Even though Broomfield was in the story, I guess it didn’t feel as much like gross interloping since he was personally involved with one of the subjects at one point. I guess. We get a relatively equal exploration of their flawed artist-muse relationship. The film’s bittersweet conclusion, involving a letter from one old friend to another, would be considered fanciful if it weren’t true. Much like its subjects, Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love carries a wistful, sometimes mysterious, vibe that you can get swept up in if you let it.

Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love— Rated R.
Directed by Nick Broomfield. Starring Leonard Cohen, Judy Collins, and Ron Cornelius.