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And in this era, where we have to decide almost daily if we can separate the art from the artist, Leonard Cohen’s relationship with Marianne Ihlen, in which the remarkable songwriter and itinerant ladies man took so much in order to make himself into a global superstar, looms large.
But a new documentary, , out this weekend, sheds a sympathetic, if unflinching, light on the complicated but enduring relationship between Cohen and the woman often identified as the person who most supported and inspired him, especially in his early, woebegone days.“I think Marianne had the ability to discern the strength in people,” Nick Broomfield, the film’s director, who knew both Ihlen and Cohen, told me recently.
“And I think that is a real talent, and a very rare talent, because it’s about really tuning into people and honing into their greatness. I think the tabloids are the ones who always slap the word ‘muse’ on lots of people, and it’s a cheap description, and usually ill-informed.”In the early 1960s, Cohen escaped to Hydra, the idyllic Greek island that served as a sort of Euro-Woodstock for the artists and misfits who gravitated there.
He met Ihlen, who was living there with her young son from a previous marriage, and the pair began a long, tempestuous relationship.
Many were swallowed up by Hydra’s excesses.“They went out there as writers or painters, but lacked the discipline to really sustain their art and their belief in themselves, I think, as artists,” Broomfield reflected.
“They succumbed to the very cheap red vino and beautiful women and drugs.
For the title track, he posthumously received a Grammy Award for best rock performance.
Join Britannica's Publishing Partner Program and our community of experts to gain a global audience for your work!One performance from that tour was recorded for the album (2012) was a bluesy exploration of familiar Cohen themes—spirituality, love, and loss—that eschewed the synthesized melodies of much of Cohen’s post-1980s material in favour of the folk sound of his earliest work.Released just weeks before his death, Cohen’s 14th studio album, (2016), was received by critics as a late-period masterpiece.(Correspondence between the two recently fetched nearly a million dollars, the proceeds from which will help care for Ihlen’s son.)There’s footage of Ihlen at a concert, clearly moved by Cohen’s still–effervescent rendition of the song he wrote for her and about her, but it’s the reading of the infamous message from her old flame on her deathbed, and the grace and humor she has when she hears Cohen’s warm words read aloud, that firmly establishes Ihlen as a force without peer in Cohen’s life, and sums up the film. That these people who were so important had passed on, and that there was so much more I would’ve liked to have talked to him about, or to just have spent more time with her, was really the inspiration behind this film.I’m just a little behind you, close enough to take your hand. It just reminded me of how one gets swept away with the details of one’s own life, many of which are not that significant.
There’s footage of Cohen in concert in the film, talking about his relationship with Ihlen, saying bluntly that, at first, he lived with her for most of the year, then two months, then two weeks, until, he says in his distinct deadpan, that he would only see her “two days a year.” It’s delivered affectionately, and with humor, but the bite is all too obvious.