In ‘Marianne & Leonard,’ opening Friday, director Nick Broomfield explores Cohen’s origin story and relationship with Marianne, his own former flame who loved both men on Hydra

NEW YORK — In November 2016 music and poetry fans the world over mourned the passing of the legendarily out-of-time Jewish-Canadian balladeer. But just a few months earlier, at the passing of a Norwegian woman named Marianne Ihlen, the world swooned at the release of a letter Cohen had written to his old lover on her deathbed. “I’m just a little behind you, close enough to take your hand.”

Perhaps you know Cohen, currently the subject of a major exhibit at New York’s Jewish Museum, from his books of poetry, or maybe a college crush played one of his early folk records. Maybe the 1980s Europop disco tracks got you hooked, or maybe you saw a concert in his post-Buddhist monastery period, after a manager embezzled all his money and he went back on the road as a romantic elder statesman/mystical bard/wandering Jew in a tipped fedora with an enormous backing band. In any case, there’s a good chance you’ve encountered the work of the late troubadour who went from Montreal Jewish day schools to become a world sensation.

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Documentarian Nick Broomfield’s new film, “Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love” is a rumination on the Leonard Cohen origin story, the facts of which are so perfect they sound like lines from a Leonard Cohen song: After achieving a mild degree of success with two books of poetry in the late 1950s and very early 60s, Cohen took his meager earnings and wandered around Greece. He took a boat to the island of Hydra, stepped off and knew that he would stay.

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Hydra called to him as locations of Greek myth often do, and what he found there was a community of artists and bohemians living among the fisherman and townspeople. With just a small bit of money one could live in relative ease under the sun and drink wine and paint or write or just live. One could also fall in love, as was the case when Cohen met a newly divorced 25-year-old from Norway named Marianne Ihlen.

Ihlen became Cohen’s muse, aiding him as he feverishly typed out his books in the hot sun. In the evenings they took drugs and caroused as only 1960s drop-outs could. When Cohen’s novel “Beautiful Losers” was poorly received he went back to Montreal, then New York, and, thanks to a strange set of circumstances, emerged as a songwriter.

Marianne Ihlen seen in the documentary ‘Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love’ (Courtesy Roadside Attractions)

His composition “Suzanne” became a hit for Judy Collins and, after dragging his feet, he became a performer himself. While hardly an instant superstar, his brokenhearted observations and world-weary, flat vocalizations instantly connected with a certain type of bookish, romantic fan.

As his star rose in North America and Europe, Marianne maintained their home in Hydra with her son from a previous marriage, Axel. Though never married, their relationship was the rock of his early career. But over time even their period-appropriate openness became strained, and life on Hydra became difficult and even dangerous for many of the ex-pats. Cohen’s masterpiece “So Long, Marianne” announced their separation, although it didn’t really stick. They stayed entwined even as Cohen sired children with another woman.

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Director Broomfield details their romance from that first step off the boat to their deaths only months apart, and he does it in a way that only he can. As it happens, he was a young college graduate from Cardiff when he visited Hydra at age 20, entering a relationship with Marianne when she was 13 years his senior.

The spell of Hydra is at the heart of this documentary, as is a frankness about its two subjects. Though we may consider Leonard Cohen to be cerebral and enlightened, he partied like any other rock star in the 1970s. (There’s a sequence of him blitzed out of his mind on LSD during a concert in Jerusalem, where he feels compelled for some reason to go backstage and shave in the middle of a performance.) If you only know Leonard Cohen from his music, this documentary is eye-opening, but the biography complements his work when you consider its grand and, at times, fatalistic scope.

Nick Broomfield spoke to TOI via phone from Los Angeles, an edited transcript of which is below.

I’ve listened to Leonard Cohen’s albums for years but I guess there was a lot about him I did not know. Everything about the island of Hydra sounds too good to be true, a fantasy world out of one of his songs that can fulfill your dreams but also drain your soul.

Marianne Ihlen seen in the documentary ‘Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love’ (Courtesy Roadside Attractions)

Leonard said, “after you’ve lived on Hydra you can’t live anywhere else. Including Hydra.”

It’s such a magical place. But also a difficult place. It requires discipline to provide structure where you can survive there.

Your film gets into the mindset of the expatriates living there at the time. What did the natives think of all the Brits, Canadians, Scandinavian artists who up all night taking acid and having affairs? Was there any friction?

They all became close, really. Certainly someone like Leonard spent a great deal of time at the monasteries on the island. Spending time with the fishermen, getting to the culture. There was acceptance on behalf of the islanders. But there would be disagreements from time to time.

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The foreigners would be the ones to show reluctance about, say, new buildings or roads being built. There’s still only mules there. Some of the local Greeks wanted to have cars on certain parts of the island, to develop it more into a holiday resort. But of course, the foreigners were there because they loved the ancient feel of the island, that there were no cars. So there was that kind of conflict. They wanted to bring in plastic tables and the foreigners were opposed to it.

If “Beautiful Losers” had been more of a critical and commercial success would Leonard and Marianne’s relationship have lasted longer? Would he have stayed on the island? Do you think, maybe, he would never have gotten into music and remained an author?

I think that is possible. Leonard and [his early teacher and mentor] Irving Layton tried to do a television series in Canada, but it was unsuccessful. There was a need to generate more income, which didn’t really work. I do think if any of those projects were more successful he wouldn’t have had that pressure sing and start writing songs.

In a way we can thank the lack of success for those great records.

Exactly!

Irving Layton’s widow Aviva mentions in your film that Layton and Cohen really bonded because they were Jewish, but she leaves it at that.

Leonard Cohen seen in the documentary ‘Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love’ (Courtesy Roadside Attractions)

Leonard was very influenced by his grandfather, who was Talmudic scholar. He lived in his house. Leonard’s father died rather young, but there was this influential Jewish scholar there, who made quite an impression. Leonard was very well read in Jewish scriptures, and I think it had a massive influence on his work.

Later in life he made religion part of his daily practice, but was he observant during those years on Hydra? Was he keeping the Sabbath while living with a Norwegian woman on a Greek island far from the eyes of his family?

I don’t believe he was practicing in the traditional sense, but I think he was fundamentally influenced by Jewish writing and the holy books he read. He became more connected to the Jewish faith later in his life, and it was certainly immensely important to him to procreate with a Jewish woman. I believe he came from a strict Jewish family who were influential with the synagogues of Montreal, so it was a big part of his growing up. On Hydra, I don’t even know if there was a synagogue at all.

Your film includes amazing footage of his tours of the late 1960s and early 1970s. I tend to think of Leonard Cohen as a very serious man, a writer of very noble, poignant work. But as your film shows, he’s carousing like any rock star of the time. He’s have fit in with the Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin, but in a slightly classier way.

For those early tours he believed in “happenings.” He needed this incredible connection with the audience. Later on he rehearsed and rehearsed and was super disciplined. Every night was precisely the same with only the smallest bit of improvisation. If he would get down on one knee in a song, it was literally at the same phrase of the song each night. In those early says, though, he was more open to new experiences every night, but I don’t know how long anyone can keep that up.

Marianne Ihlen seen in the documentary ‘Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love’ (Courtesy Roadside Attractions)

In the later footage, after his comeback, there definitely is a bit of a showman, with the cocked hat and everything. It’s almost a little hammy.

He really started enjoying touring and performing in his later years. He didn’t enjoy it earlier on. He was full of self-doubt and depression. After he left the monastery that all lifted. He liked it, and carried on far longer than he needed to, once he’d made back his money.

Watching the film, your narrator’s voice comes in and it’s a bit of a shock. We don’t expect the filmmaker to be so personally involved with this story, to have had an intimate relationship with one of the subjects. But it’s ambiguous if you yourself ever met Leonard.

I did meet Leonard. A few times, but not in Hydra, I first met him in Los Angeles. He wasn’t there when I met Marianne, he was in New York. But I met him years later, at a friend’s dinner. We mainly spoke about Axel.

You both dated the same woman. Was it an awkward conversation?

No, it was pleasant. I had just seen Marianne in Oslo, and he asked about Axel [who he helped raise on Hydra.] He was always very concerned about Axel’s welfare. Though Axel’s development was troubled, it was still a pleasant conversation.

THE TIMES OF ISRAEL

Obituary: Leonard Cohen

‘I’m junk but I’m still holding up this little wild bouquet/Democracy is coming to the USA. To the USA’

Leonard Cohen’s song Democracy is a virtual clarion call when you consider that Cohen, who has died in New York, aged 82, passed away as Donald Trump accepted the American presidency. An overt political message was rare in Cohen’s work, but Tiananmen Square, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the LA riots disturbed him enough to release his 1992 album The Future, which includes this devastating song. It reflects his awareness that the innocent, bohemian joy of the 1960s had crumbled to ashes and something darker was emerging.

Yet Leonard Cohen was disturbed by many things: social problems, broken love, loss and if not angst, then definitely a Jewish melancholy. You can hear it in Hallelujah, one of the world’s most covered songs; in Story of Isaac and in his explicit poetry like The Genius from his collection The Spice-Box of Earth; For you/ I will be a ghetto jew/and dance/and put white stockings on my twisted limbs/and poison wells/across the town.

Quintessentially a poet who published two novels The Favourite Game (1963) and Beautiful Losers – his voice has a darkness, a depth and an edge that can be missed in the singing. It also has more than a touch of self parody. Some have argued that Cohen might well have shared the Nobel prize for literature with this year’s surprise laureate Bob Dylan, who praised his melodies as “beautifully constructed.” Cohen’s voice is clearer, deeper, sadder. His hymnal Hallelujah, referencing King David, Bathsheba and Samson – It goes like this/the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, the major lift/The baffled king composing Hallelujah – defines the mystery and the pathos of life as well as the painful art of composition, in which he finds his biblical resonance. But it is the cold and broken Hallelujah which really speaks to us. Jeff Buckley’s popular version which reached No 2 in the iTunes chart intensified its message, partly because he died not long after.

“I have a deep tribal sense”, Cohen told The New Yorker Magazine earlier this year. “I grew up in a synagogue that my ancestors built. I sat in the third row. My family was decent. They were good people, they were handshake people. So I never had a sense of rebellion.” His Jewish background certainly had an influence. You can hear in some of his music the flowing lilt of a Chassidic chant; in others a definite sound of Klezmer. His own voice has a slow drawl, the words ring out meaningfully, where other singers might slur them.

Born in Westmount, an affluent suburb of Montreal, Canada, Cohen was the second child of a prominent Jewish family. His father Nathan, ran Freedman Company, the family clothing business. His mother Masha née Klonitski, “a loving, depressive, Chekhovian,” was the daughter of Solomon Klonitski-Kline, a distinguished Talmudist from Lithuania. Her family had emigrated more recently to Canada. Cohen described the men on his paternal side as the “dons” of Jewish Montreal. His philanthropic grandfather founded many Jewish institutions and brought countless refugees to Canada in the wake of the Russian pogroms. But Leonard Cohen lost his father at the age of nine. It was a “primal wound” which made him use language as a kind of sacrament. After the funeral he cut one of the wings off his father’s bow tie and buried it with a farewell note in the back yard. Clearly this early loss invaded Cohen’s young soul and deepened the talent that would eventually surface in So Long Marianne, an ode to his lover Marianne Irhen, or Bird on a Broken Wire, or Sisters of Mercy, which speaks to his personal sense of isolation.

His first musical venture was into country and western. Aged 16,he formed The Buckskin Boys, strutting in his father’s old suede jacket, while reading English at McGill University. He published several poetry collections, including Let Us Compare Mythologies, his first in 1956, followed by Spice Box of Earth (1961) and Flowers for Hitler (1964) which won him the Quebec literary award. He studied briefly at Columbia University in New York before touring Europe and settling on the Greek island of Hydra where he met his muse, Marianne.

He studied for many years in a Zen monastery, combatting his demons of loneliness and shadows. The folk singer Judy Collins helped his career as a performer, often boosting his confidence if he suffered stage fright, to which he was prone. One night, having fled the stage he heard the audience singing Shalom Aleichem to him. Hearing it from his dressing room gave him the courage to go back onstage .
Columbia Records produced his debut album, soon followed by Songs in a Room (1969). The following year he performed at the Royal Albert Hall and at rock festivals in Bath and the Isle of Wight.

Despite the lugubrious note in his songs Cohen himself had a striking beauty; his quirky, brooding, Semitic features seemed only to intensify his melancholy voice, and soon he was dubbed the godfather of gloom.Two years before the release of his next album New Skin for the Old Ceremony, which contained a song about his brief relationship with Janis Joplin, he published another poetry book The Energy of Slaves.

Between bouts of spiritual renewal in Greece, Cohen produced several albums which discussed relationships and religion. In 1977 he released Death of a Ladies Man followed by Recent Songs two years later which featured duets with Jennifer Warnes who contributed to his next albums up to 2012.

Two tribute albums followed, including Cohen songs performed by REM, John Cale, Nick Cave and Ian McCulloch in the first, and Bono, Don Henley, Elton John and Peter Gabriel in the second. In 1991 he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada, promoted to Companion in 2003.

In Dear Heather Cohen mixed technology with traditional instruments, including settings of poems by Byron and Frank Scott.

It also included On That Day, a reflection of 9/11, and a homage to the women in his life.

At the age of 70 he won a successful lawsuit to recover millions of dollars siphoned by his agent from his estate, but the actual process of recovering the money proved difficult. The loss of his retirement fund, however, boosted his creativity.

He released Blue Alert, an album written with Anjani Thomas and began a world tour. In 2008 Cohen was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and won rapturous applause with his rendition of Hallelujah at Glastonbury. In 2009 he performed in Israel, and in 2010 won the Grammy Lifetime Award, bolstered by further albums and awards.

In October this year Leonard Cohen launched his final,fatalistic set of songs, You Want it Darker, produced by his son Adam. In his New Yorker Magazine interview with David Remnick, he discusses the Kabbalistic thrust of Judaism — “the repair of the face of God, a reminder that we were once a unity.” He said he could still hear the voice of God, but it was different now, not the incessant voice of judgment, but calmer. The powerful lyric of You Want it Darker could hardly be more Jewish: Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name/Vilified, crucified, in the human frame/A million candles burning for the help that never came/You want it darker/Hineni, hineni/I’m ready, my lord.

Leonard Cohen is survived by his son Adam, a singer-songwriter,and a daughter Lorca, a photographer and videographer from his relationship with the artist Suzanne Elrod.


Kazan- Kazan National Research Technical University Казанский национальный исследовательский технический университет имени А. Н. Туполева he graduated in Economics in 1982

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