Review: ‘Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song’ (documentary)

Cohen approved the development of the movie just before his 80th birthday in 2014 (the artist died in 2016). The film presents a “deep exploration” of Hallelujah from its origins and its poor initial reception, to become one of the most recognized and celebrated songs of all time.

Photo: Screenshot from the documentary

02 September 2021 | Jason Bailey | The Playlist

Daniel Gellar and Dayna Goldfine’s “Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song” begins at what is, by most definitions, the end: with Cohen’s final concert, in December of 2013.

He roams the stage, growling out the title song in his trademark fedora and black suit, with all 79 of his years behind it, and it sounds like both a dirge and a celebration. By this time, the omnipresent “Hallelujah” was the song Cohen was most associated with, its strange combination of spirituality and sin, of operatic emotion and shrugging acceptance, making it a standard – the 21st century’s “Yesterday.” 

But there’s a whole oddball history there, a strange, twisted story of the “Hallelujah” path from forgotten album track to cultural ubiquity, first told in Alan Light’s 2012 book “The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of ‘Hallelujah’” (Light is credited here as a consultant), and later on in Malcolm Gladwell’s “Revisionist History” podcast. It’s a fabulous yarn, filled with errors in judgment, artistic itchiness, and split-second timing, and when Gellar and Goldfine tell it, their film is spellbinding.

The problem is, there’s all this other stuff. Early on, we’re assured that we have to understand Leonard Cohen’s journey to the song to understand the song itself, which is true to some extent—but that plays like an excuse for sneaking in a not-inconsiderable amount of conventional bio-doc material. We walk through his background, his history as an artist (first a poet and novelist, than a songwriter and performer), and the spiritual path he was trying to seek and walk in the years leading up to this song’s inception. 

A little of this would seem to go a long way, but there’s quite a lot of it (the film runs a leisurely 115 minutes). The hustle to get to the matter at hand gives “Hallelujah” some speed and energy, but it nevertheless often feels like the filmmakers had so much good Cohen material, they wanted to get it all in, whether or not there was room. 

The album on which the song first appeared (Various Positions) was rejected by Columbia

But the picture lifts considerably once it gets to the title song, by way of drilling down into his writing process. We’re shown notebooks, dozens of them, with page after page of verses, variations, and revisions. “These are all the ‘Hallelujah’ songs,” Cohen says, explaining how he spent years writing various versions of the haunting lyrics, illustrated by big close-ups of these scrawled notes, couplets, verses. “I remember being in my underwear,” he confesses, “on the carpet, banging my head against the carpet, saying ‘I can’t do it anymore.’”

The filmmakers similarly, ingeniously illustrate the song’s various mutations with animated text, showcasing how verses disappeared or were rearranged, and how new verses appeared, in the “original version,” the “secular version,” the “John Cale version,” and so on. Incredibly, the Cohen album on which it first appeared (Various Positions) was rejected by Columbia, his label, so it was released later by a tiny independent entity, with little fanfare.

The song then made its way from Cohen to Bob Dylan to John Cale to Jeff Buckley, and as it travels, the film becomes their story too – much in the way that everyone who sings this song leaves a piece of themselves in it, and everyone who sings it after is doing the other versions as well. And that strange alchemy is perhaps why it became so important to so many other artists in the ensuing years. They heard it, and it felt like a song about them. And when they sang it, it became their song too.

Gellar and Goldfine manage the tone expertly, inserting little jolts of humor to keep things from getting too reverent; many of them come from Cohen’s long-time chronicler, the rock journalist Larry “Ratso” Sloman, who gets the film’s biggest laugh by tracing its path to ubiquity thus: “It was first Cale, and then Buckley… and then ‘Shrek.’

Leonard Cohen
Leonard Cohen

They also don’t mind showing how the song was all but flattened by its frequent appearances on various “Reach For The Stars”-esque TV talent shows (a very funny supercut reveals some, well, questionable interpretations). And Cohen’s archival interviews are often wryly witty, as he muses, “I tell you, I have a huge posthumous career ahead of me. My estate will swell,” or describes the feeling of watching the song succeed, after its initial rejection, as “a certain mild sense of revenge.”

Once it’s become That Song, however, the filmmakers turn their full attention back to Cohen, diving into the financial and artistic woes of his later years, and his final triumphs as well (all the headlines, we can’t help but notice, include the word “Hallelujah”).

These scenes are lovely, and heartfelt, but they feel like another movie – and like a bit of an appendage, after the roller coaster ride of the middle, “Hallelujah” hour. But “Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song” is worth seeing for that material; after all, songs become standards all the time, but not usually like this. “It’s its own thing now,” Brandi Carlile explains. “It’s its own person, it has its own life.” And, well, hallelujah to that. [B-]


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