It sounds like a Nicholas Sparks novel: Two star-crossed lovers in their mid-20s meet on a beautiful Greek island. She becomes the muse that jump-starts his singing career. They grow apart and eventually go their separate ways but remain on each other’s mind for the rest of their lives. At the very end, the two connect one more time while in their 80s before passing away within three months of each other.
This is the true story of legendary folk singer Leonard Cohen and his Norwegian muse, Marianne Ihlen, as told by filmmaker Nick Broomfield using unviewed footage shot by renowned documentarian D.A. Pennebaker.
The film opens with a 2016 BBC news clip announcing the passing of Marianne Ihlen, the woman that inspired Leonard Cohen to write some of his best-known work including “Bird on a Wire” and “So Long, Marianne.” The two met on the Greek island of Hydra in 1960 and fell in love. Twelve years later, it was officially over, although they had grown apart several years earlier.
The two, however, shared such a strong bond that the universe found a way to bring them together one last time.
When Ihlen was diagnosed with leukemia in July 2016, her good friend Jan Christian Mollestad contacted Cohen to let him know she was dying. Two hours later he sent her a message:
I’m just a little behind you, close enough to take your hand. This old body has given up, just as yours has, too, and the eviction notice is on its way any day now.
I’ve never forgotten your love and your beauty. But you know that. I don’t have to say anymore. Safe travels old friend. See you down the road. Love and gratitude. – Leonard
A touching scene in the documentary shows Ihlen in her hospital bed a few days before passing away, reacting to the message “That was very beautiful.” Cohen passed away three months later and after spending 97 minutes getting acquainted with the couple via Broomfield’s documentary, one gets the sense that they were reunited once again on a higher plane.
Broomfield became known for gritty documentaries about serial killers Aileen Wuornos and Lonnie David Franklin Jr., aka the “Grim Sleeper,” and ones that focused on entertainers “Whitney: Can I Be Me,” “Biggie and Tupac” and “Kurt and Courtney.”
With “Words of Love” the filmmaker departs from his usual fare to focus on enduring love with a vested interest. Broomfield discusses his brief love affair with Ihlen while visiting Hydra in his 20s. She may have been Cohen’s muse, but Broomfield credits Ihlen with convincing him to make his first film.
Using never-before-seen footage shot by legendary documentarian D.A. Pennebaker, who visited Ihlen and her young son, Axel, in 1967, new footage shot by Broomfield, interviews with friends, and audio snippets of Cohen and Ihlen recounting their intersecting lives, the documentary paints a portrait of two people who cared for one another, torn apart in stereotypical fashion by fame, success and the opportunity of free love.
Women came and went in Cohen’s life, including Suzanne Eldrod, the mother of his son, Adam. Although Elrod came along while Ihlen and Cohen were still occasionally seeing each other, Aviva Layton (former wife of Canadian poet and Cohen’s close friend Irving Layton) offers firsthand insight on Cohen’s disposition and destructive behavior. She also makes it a point to remind the viewer that poets, musicians, actors, and entertainers don’t make good husbands – not breaking news.
Several times during the documentary Broomfield veers off course as if we’re headed into a Cohen biopic but eventually, the film comes full circle and Ihlen reenters the story. Still, the footage is amazing, the story captivating and a bonus for Cohen fans.