Anyone who is a fan of Leonard Cohen’s music is sure to want to see this documentary about his life and the woman who became his muse despite their disconnections through the years. It’s a love story, but likely more unconventional than any other told before, perhaps partly because of the times (1960’s-70’s) and partly because of who Leonard Cohen was in his soul and eventually came to be as a result of his stardom in the era of free and open love.
Leonard came from a well-off, well-educated Jewish family in Montreal. His father died when he was nine, but he was close to his mother, from whom he got his love of and talent for music. Unfortunately, he got something additional, which was depression, which seems to have run in the family. He himself was plagued with it throughout his life, although not to the degree he needed to be hospitalized. His stint in a monastery for five years in the 1990’s was very likely beneficial to him, not only in terms of mental problems, but in spiritual guidance as well, which centered him.
Leonard meets Marianne on the Greek island of Hydra in 1960, when she is married to someone else, but the union is falling apart. He is a writer, not a singer at the time, and has come there to join the artist colony and write novels, spending hours in the hot sun slaving away. As their friendship increases, Marianne is attentive in bringing him whatever he needs, and eventually becomes his muse—a role she will play for the rest of his life.
His first novel, Beautiful Losers, doesn’t sell and is panned by the critics, after which he has a breakdown. He emerges from this with the resolve to go into music, even though he doesn’t play an instrument and doesn’t think he has a very good voice. But when he goes to New York and visits Judy Collins, she recognizes his talent and pushes him forward in performing his own songs. At this point one has to wonder how much of a role simple fate is playing in his future, because his career takes off.
The film by Nick Broomfield gives us highlights of Cohen’s folk star years, his music and personal relationships, the mostly ups—and some downs—of his career, his indulgence in drugs (LSD, speed, and alcohol), his unfortunate connections with Phil Spector, and eventually, his entering a monastery to find peace. It’s well done in giving the viewer a picture of the person and all the elements and people in his life that were influential.
All the while, the film keeps us up to date about Marianne’s life and hers and Leonard’s intense attraction and “easy love” for one another, something that with geographical distance eventually transforms into increasingly infrequent communication. However, the love story is in their always maintaining some kind of connection despite distances, and that at the end of her life, he sends her a poignant telegram that expresses what she has always meant to him. At some point, Cohen confesses that, “I overthrew them (Marianne and her son Axel, for whom he had become a father figure) for an education in the world.” It’s a decision that is arguable from almost anyone’s point of view, but one that is surely to arise in many relationships.
A tender, poignant recap of Leonard Cohen’s life in all its color, reflecting the cultural times.