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Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song (A Movie Review)

Updated: Feb 11


Featuring Brandi Carlile, Eric Church, Judy Collins, Sharon Robinson, Regina Spektor, Rufus Wainwright, Nancy Bacal, Steve Berkowitz, Adrienne Clarkson, Clive Davis, Shayne Doyle, Susan Feldman, Rabbi Mordecai Finley, Glen Hansard, Dominique Issermann, Vicky Jenson, Myles Kennedy, John Lissauer, Janine Dreyer Nichols, Amanda Palmer, Larry 'Ratso' Sloman, Joan Wasser, Hal Willner and archival footage of Leonard Cohen, John Cale, Bob Dylan and Jeff Buckley.

Directed by Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine.

Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics. 115 minutes. Rated PG-13.

“It was [the] trajectory that made me interested in exploring the song. I cannot think of another song that had a comparable experience. Anything that's up in that altitude, songs like ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ or ‘Imagine,’ people got right away that those were important songs. They were big hits. Obviously, their meaning changed over time, but there was this huge splash and then everybody was aware of them. ‘Hallelujah,’ when Leonard turned in the album the song was on, his label rejected it. Columbia didn't put the album out. Then when it came out on an indie label a little later, nobody noticed the song. The review in Rolling Stone was a nice review, but it didn't mention ‘Hallelujah.’ So this song starts not just under the radar, but way off the radar. No one knew it was there. It's the fact that it [appeared] slowly but surely. It was never a hit. It was never one thing where everybody discovers this song. It was a gradual build of momentum that kind of snowballed, in fact, from different covers and different versions and different uses.”

This was the explanation that music journalist Alan Light gave me in 2013 when we were discussing his then-new book The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley & the Unlikely Ascent of "Hallelujah," which was an in-depth examination of the slow rise of the song to iconic status.

The new documentary Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song was inspired by that book (Light is one of the producers of the film as well as one of the consultants about the subject), although it takes a slightly different tack than the tome. Light made a point to make the narrative about the strange journey of the song, not spending more than a chapter or two of its time specifically on the creator. (“The book could have gotten too top-heavy as a Leonard and Jeff [Buckley] co-biography,” Light explained to me at the time.)

While the film does explore the strange path that the song took to becoming a musical standard, the film is more of a straight biography of singer-songwriter Cohen which periodically swerves into different directions about other uses of the tune.

And you know what? That’s okay. Leonard Cohen’s life is endlessly fascinating. I’m all in, either way.

Which is not to say that there is not enough just in the one song. “Hallelujah” was an ongoing work in progress for years, with the songwriter tinkering with the lyrics long after he had originally recorded the song. In fact, he supposedly had written 180-some verses of the song over the years.

It seeped into the public consciousness slowly. First off, Bob Dylan took to occasionally covering the song in concert. Then former Velvet Underground member John Cale did a reworked version on a Leonard Cohen tribute album. It was that version that led to the recording which may have opened the floodgates – singer Jeff Buckley’s recording of the song on his debut album Grace was based on Cale’s version, he had never heard the Cohen original.

Since then, the song has been used in multiple different ways. Anytime there is a huge celebration someone sings it. Anytime there is a great tragedy, someone sings it. It has been used at sporting events, at weddings, at funerals. It is a staple on TV music reality competition shows. It has been recorded in dozens of holiday albums – even though other than the title and some religious imagery there is nothing even the least bit “Christmas-y” about it. It was even used in Shrek.

While it is undoubtedly Leonard Cohen’s best-known song, it is not necessarily Leonard Cohen’s best song. (And this is coming from someone who loves the song.) Therefore, the film Hallelujah does the public service of opening up significantly more of Cohen’s body of work to fans who may know only the one song.

It also gives us a fascinating ride-along on the very unusual pathway of Cohen’s career. He started as a poet and acclaimed novelist who didn’t even start in music until his 30s, at which point he was probably a little old, a little rich, and a little well-dressed for the hippy summer of love lifestyle he was entering. Still, Cohen was an unusually thoughtful and philosophical man with a sterling sense of language, a man who was able to sustain a career for over 40 years without once having a real hit single.

He was the type of man who would put his life on hold for six years just to take a spiritual retreat at a Buddhist monastery. He was a man who lived in the same home for decades, even when he could afford to move someplace much nicer. He was the kind of man who was so unworried about the material that he didn’t even notice that his manager had stolen all of his money. And he was the kind of man who when that happened, he just hit the road for the first time in decades, touring for years and not only making back all the money he lost, but also revitalizing his career to the point that when he died in 2016, he was probably more respected as an artist than he ever had been.

“Hallelujah” was a big part of the story, but it was not the whole thing. The movie Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song tells even more of that story. After all, as the guy himself said in his song “Anthem,” “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” The world is a better place because this movie is letting in the light.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2022 All rights reserved. Posted: July 1, 2022.

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