"Art, But at What Cost?"
What You Need To Know:
WORDS OF LOVE could have been shorter, but it’s an engaging look into Leonard Cohen’s life and career and his time with Marianne. However, the life they lived, as well as the people with whom they associated, was immoral and included drugs and sex. In fact, some people’s lives were completely destroyed, with Marianne’s son having drug and mental health problems. WORDS OF LOVE does show that immorality has negative consequences, but it presents a superficial view of Cohen’s beliefs, which were Jewish mixed with Buddhist and Christian teachings.
MARIANNE & LEONARD: WORDS OF LOVE is a documentary about the romantic relationship and friendship between an acclaimed Canadian writer, songwriter and performer and a Norwegian woman.
The movie begins in 1960 as two young people spending time in the Greek island of Hydra meet and begin a long journey together. Marianne Ihlen was a very blonde Norwegian girl full of youth and life, enjoying swimming in the warm Mediterranean waters. Leonard Cohen was a Jewish Canadian author with a three page a day deadline for writing two novels. Leonard was also using hallucinogenic drugs to write, because he believed it helped inspire and “expand” his mind. When they met, it was muse at first sight, and Cohen wrote a song for Marianne that would eventually become one of his greatest hits.
Marianne already had a young son named Axel from her previous marriage (her husband abandoned her and their son for another woman). Leonard loved Axel as his own, and they became a sort of family. However, with it being the 1960s, there was little respect for any kind of commitment, and although they were romantically involved, they both had other lovers as well.
Cohen finally published BEAUTIFUL LOSERS in 1966, and it was widely regarded as one of the worst books of all time. Many critics saw it as unintelligible, and many intellectuals tried to dissect it, but were unable to do so (it has since gained much praise, however, for its innovative quality).
Although Cohen couldn’t play guitar and didn’t consider himself a musician or singer, he began to write things that he wasn’t even sure were songs. Having moved to New York City in 1966 to explore the folk-rock scene, he consulted a musician friend of his in 1966 and sang to her a piece of what he wrote, a song called “Suzanne.” This friend, a popular singer songwriter at the time named Judy Collins, recorded “Suzanne,” which became a big hit for her, and began to sing it at her concerts.
This encounter with Judy changed both Cohen and Marianne’s life. At one point, Judy forced Cohen to come out on stage and sing the song himself. However, in the middle of the song, he was overcome by stage fright and had to walk away. When he finally was able to come out on stage and really sing, though, he was immediately snatched up by a big record label, and his longtime music career began. At the same time, his relationship with Marianne was changing. Although she remained his muse, he continued to have even more relations with other women, staying with Marianne and her son at times and sometimes staying elsewhere.
As Marianne followed Cohen around the world on his tour, her son was neglected and suffered because of it. Eventually, her son turned to drugs and spent the majority of his life in a mental institution.
Meanwhile, Cohen and his entourage toured everywhere rarely sober, never giving the chance for a hangover because they would just continue doing more things. Leonard also began a serious relationship with another woman who also had a young son, who eventually came to Hydra to kick Marianne and her son out of the house.
In the 1970s, Cohen had a long relationship with a third woman, with whom he had two children, a son and a daughter. In 1979, however, she broke up with Cohen, who admitted he was too cowardly and fearful to marry her.
Cohen continued his music career in the 1980s, but in 1994, he retired to a Buddhist monastery under a Buddhist monk and longtime friend, spending five years meditating, studying and serving as the monk’s assistant. Cohen resumed his music career in Los Angeles in 1999.
Meanwhile, Marianne married a Norwegian man in 1979. She returned to Norway and truly blossomed. Then, when she was on her deathbed in 2016, she received a heartwarming love letter from Cohen, telling her he’s not far behind her and adding, “I’ve never forgotten your love and your beauty.” They died only months apart, after an adventurous life full of love, pain, regret, and art.
Although this story could have been told in a shorter, more concise manner, MARIANNE & LEONARD: WORDS OF LOVE is a fascinating and engaging look at the private life and career of Leonard Cohen, who’s often mentioned in the same breath as Bob Dylan when it comes to influential songwriters of the 1960s. However, “Hallelujah,” Cohen’s most well-known song, isn’t touched on until the very end. The movie reports that the song was initially thought of as a complete failure.
After watching WORDS OF MUSIC, it’s amazing that Leonard Coehn managed to live such a long life, considering the amount of illicit substances and alcohol that filled his body for much of his life, not to mention the countless affairs he had. Even so, the filmmakers seemed not to have had quite enough material to fill the movie’s entire 102 minutes, so the movie does feel like it drags at times.
WORDS OF MUSIC has a strong Romantic worldview. The entire motivation for the people in the movie seems to have been being the pursuit of personal artistic expression, whether that means doing drugs or having multiple lovers. The people who are the subject matter display an almost total lack of morality, showing a lifestyle without any guide for right and wrong. The filmmakers do little to counteract this abhorrent message, though people do express some regret about the flippancy with which they lived in the 1960s. Also, the movie does show some negative consequences to the past immoral behavior being discussed. That said, the overall message in MARIANNE & LEONARD: WORDS OF LOVE is rather abhorrent.
Strangely, the movie never mentions the fact that, according to the New York Times and other sources, Cohen was a Sabbath observant Jew all his life. Despite his Jewish faith, he saw no conflict between his Judaism and his practice of Zen Buddhism, which began in the 1990s. Apparently, to Cohen, Buddhism was more of an attitude than a religious practice. In fact, he claimed it helped cure him later on in life of his frequent bouts of depression. Thus, his songs are filled with both Buddhist, Jewish and biblical references. They also contain references to Jesus Christ. In interviews, Cohen often expressed fondness for Jesus, especially His moral teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. Of course, the teachings of Jesus are more than just a bunch of moral and ethical aphorisms. Furthermore, Jesus also condemned extramarital sex, stealing, murder, slander, and other immoral behavior in the New Testament. In a 2007 radio interview with the BBC, Cohen said that, despite his sexual promiscuity and past drug use, he and his two children practice Judaism. “The investigations I’ve done into other spiritual systems have certainly illuminated and enriched my understanding of my own tradition,” he said. So, ultimately perhaps, the final words of Cohen’s “Hallelujah” may be a more fitting epitaph for Cohen and his work than this movie:
“I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you. And, even though it all went wrong, I’ll stand before the Lord of Song, with nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.”