Leonard Cohen documentary Words of Love makes for the most candid portrayal of the artist to date

Nick Broomfield, the director of Kurt & Courtney, pieces together a lifelong romance

A lot has been written about Leonard Cohen and Marianne Ihlen’s love story, but its genesis in the minds of most seems to be a shaky iPhone video of a close friend reading a letter that Leonard sent to her on her deathbed. “Well, Marianne, it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.” Marianne passed away shortly after, followed by Cohen four months later.

Words of Love is a tender new portrait of the relationship that defined Cohen’s career, from start to end. They first met on Hydra in 1960; it was Cohen’s first personal commitment to a place, swapping the well-to-do Westmount Hills of his family home in Montreal for the remote mountainside in the Saronic Islands of Greece. He bought a house that contained little more than kerosene lamps and cold water, as he waited for civilization to catch up with him. He met Marianne, who was married to an erratically violent Norwegian writer, and they slowly fell in love with each other.

“I wrote this for Marianne. I hope she’s here, maybe she’s here. I hope she’s here. Marianne.” The words that opened his famous performance at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970 echo through the start of the film. What’s striking about it isn’t the choice of footage that Nick Broomfield (a brief lover of Marianne’s himself) has collated into this makeshift quilt: Murray Lerner’s documentary of the Festival released a decade ago was a more insightful piece about what organisers call “the last great event”.

Elsewhere, there’s a wedge of not-particularly-rare television footage taken from the Julie Felix Show of Cohen’s tears during a performance of ‘Stranger Song’, clips of his severe stage fright performing ‘Suzanne’ with Judy Collins, the negative press towards his confessional novel Beautiful Losers – “the most revolting book ever written in Canada” – and the acapella performance of ‘Memories’ on his tour bus; the one song from the Spector-era recordings that he didn’t disown.

These clips are as readily available as they come for anyone with even a brief archival interest in the work of Leonard Cohen. Their framing, however, is the most candid portrayal of the artist to date. It’s an honest report of his dependency on his mentor, Irving Layton, and Layton’s dependency on him. It picks at the dark recesses of his love affair with narcotics, the lustful side to the life of a lady’s man, and the breakdown of responsibility for his old life on Hydra, where fame and Marianne could not coexist. It shows the madness that Hydra instilled in many that tried to make a life there, but how for Marianne and Leonard the island unlocked a connection between poet and muse that lasted a lifetime.

Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love will be released in UK cinemas on July 26.