Because of the success of Bohemian Rhapsody (2018), the critically panned biography about Freddie Mercury that still managed to gross more than $900 million worldwide, studios seem to be willing to invest big money into musician biopics again. Narrative features about Mötley Crüe and Elton John have already been released, and films about David Bowie, Judy Garland, Boy George, and Aretha Franklin are in the works. Such films seemed like prestige-drama gold for a brief period in the 2000s — with entries like Ray (2004), Walk the Line (2005), and La Vie en Rose (2007) racking up awards and nominations — before the satirical Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007) took some deserved jabs at the subgenre’s flaws and dulled some its luster. Even as biopics go in and out of fashion, however, documentaries can act as a counterpoint to fictionalized, glossy accounts of performers’ lives by presenting the whole(ish) truth. Thankfully, singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen hasn’t received the Bohemian Rhapsody treatment yet. As director Nick Broomfield’s serviceable but flawed documentary Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love reveals, there’s certainly enough raw material for a compelling account of the singer’s life.
Marianne & Leonard begins near the end of Cohen’s life, as a heartfelt letter he wrote to his dying muse, Marianne Ilhen, is read over old photographs and home videos. The film then goes back to the couple’s romantic heydey in the 1960s — which might as well be the beginning, as far as this documentary is concerned, despite the fact that Cohen and Ilhen were in their 30s when they started their eventual live-in relationship on the island of Hydra, Greece. Broomfield jumps right into the history of Cohen the artist and Ilhen the muse. He assumes the viewer knows who these people are and wastes no time explaining that Cohen was a Canadian singer-songwriter, a novelist, and a poet or that Ilhen was a Norwegian woman who served as an inspiration to numerous creatives. A series of talking-head interviews with people who were close to the pair establishes their ethereal relationship before pushing Marianne to the background and spending nearly an hour on the highs and lows of Cohen’s career as a musician. Then the film flash-forwards, returning to the couple before their respective ends just three months apart in mid- to late 2016.
Intriguingly, although Marianne & Leonard relies heavily on talking heads for most of its running time, they do not appear in the film’s first 15 minutes. For that quarter of an hour, the documentary plays like a dream: Shakily shot home videos and candid photos on the island of Hydra show Cohen and Ilhen’s blissful love affair in all its idyllic radiance, while nameless, faceless voices describe their affinity. Sunny days, blue oceans, gleaming yachts — it’s the sort of scenery that could galvanize even the most unmotivated artist. However, as this sequence comes to an end, it becomes clear that Broomfield’s account of Marianne and Leonard’s lives and the points where they intersect will stick to a more standard documentary form.
The film’s most conspicuous flaw is the sheer lack of Cohen songs. One would think that, as a purported portrait of an artist and the art that his muse inspired, Marianne & Leonard would include copious Cohen tracks. The glaring omission of any Cohen song beyond short snippets of “Hallelujah,” “So Long, Marianne,” and “Chelsea Hotel #2” undoubtedly harms the film. Rather than using Cohen’s songs themselves, the director employs talking heads to explain those songs to the viewer — as if a thing and a description of a thing are interchangeable. Strangely, the music that dominates the feature is not Cohen’s but that of Nick Laird-Clowes. He’s the composer responsible for the film’s original score, which mostly consists of endless, gentle noodling on an acoustic guitar. Securing the rights to a feature film’s worth of Cohen’s music would have been expensive, undoubtedly, but the payoff would have been well worth the price — especially given the opportunity to introduce a new generation to Cohen’s substantial catalog.
It’s missteps like this that keep Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love from being a definitive record of Cohen and Ilhen’s relationship. From the title, the viewer would assume the documentary would zero in on the couple and tell their story in its entirety. This just isn’t the case. It’s as if Broomfield wanted to make a film about Cohen in the wake of the artist’s passing and needed a way to frame it. Marianne’s death occurring so close to Leonard’s is simply a convenient bookend, no matter how fair or unfair that is to Ilhen’s story. It’s bitterly ironic that — much like Cohen — Broomfield uses Marianne as the stimulus for his project, only to set her aside to focus on other concerns. (The director even inserts himself into the movie to let the audience know that he, too, had a relationship with Ilhen.) A different title wouldn’t necessarily solve the film’s issues, however. There isn’t enough new material here for die-hard Cohen fans — most are likely to know the story inside and out, save for the occasional tangential anecdote from a close friend and or collaborator — yet what’s presented isn’t comprehensive enough for those unfamiliar with the artist. Because the film straddles the dubious line between “too inaccessible” and “not revealing enough,” it’s unclear what sort of viewer Marianne & Leonard is intended for in the first place.
Still, even an unfocused piece of nonfiction is preferable to an inaccurate narrative biopic. Broomfield deserves credit for pushing forward with Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love rather than taking the more lucrative option: producing a fictionalized account of the documentary’s events with a couple of young up-and-comers with box-office appeal. The film neglects to mention either of Cohen’s two children, often loses sight of the relationship that supposedly anchors the project, and frequently feels like the kind of video included in a museum installation. That said, there are just enough moments that deliver to make it all (barely) worthwhile. Broomfield has the necessary music-biopic experience, after all: Marianne & Leonard is the third film in a series that began with Kurt & Courtney (1998) and continued with Biggie & Tupac (2002), and he at least knows how to hit (most of) the form’s required beats.