HALLELUJAH: LEONARD COHEN, A JOURNEY, A SONG – Review
The new documentary HALLELUJAH: LEONARD COHEN, A JOURNEY, A SONG is a double biography of sorts, of beloved Canadian-Jewish songwriter/singer Leonard Cohen, who has had a cult-like following, particularly among musicians, and his most famous song “Hallelujah,” a song that seems to be everywhere and has taken on a life of its own, transforming from a more sacred form about King David to more secular form that appears in countless movie soundtracks and has become a favorite at weddings, funerals and singing contest. This excellent documentary, from co-directors Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine, has plenty for both long-time fans and those new to the musician’s work.
Unlike some previous documentaries about Leonard Cohen, who passed away in 2016, this one focuses more on his career and its evolution than on his personal or romantic life. The admiring, insightful documentary also incorporates a look at how the musician’s Jewish background, and his explorations of Judaism and Buddhism, impacted his work.
The well-researched HALLELUJAH: LEONARD COHEN, A JOURNEY, A SONG has a wealth of material, including plenty of concert footage, archival photos and interview footage with the late musician. Inspired by Alan Light’s non-fiction book “The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley & the Unlikely Ascent of Hallelujah,” the documentary features interviews with fellow musicians and admirers Judy Collins, Rufus Wainwright, and Glen Hazard, along with former Rolling Stone music journalist Larry “Ratso” Sloman, Cohen’s producer/co-composer/collaborator John Lissauer as well as long-time friends and even his rabbi. Directors Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine structure the documentary in a different way, bracketing their tracing the journey of that song, with the story of Cohen’s career and his personal and often spiritual journey as a songwriter.
The documentary follows Cohen’s early career and his transition from poet and literary light to musician and songwriter, up to his release of his famous song, then switching to tracing the journey of that song as others recorded it and altered it, and then returning to the tale of its creator, including how the growing fame of the song altered his life and career.
Born to a wealthy Orthodox Jewish Canadian family in Quebec, Leonard Cohen came to music a bit late, at age 30 when he was already a novelist and a poet acclaimed in literary circles. First a poet and later a songwriter, his lyrics were honest and open rather than comforting, with a knowing, dark humor. His Lithuanian-born mother was the daughter of a rabbi and Talmudic writer and there were prominent figures of Jewish life on his father’s side as well.
When Cohen turned to music in the late ’60s, he was embraced by Judy Collins, Bob Dylan and other folk rock greats and developed a cult following, but wide fame eluded him. Other musicians loved Cohen’s songs, with their poetic, deeply-thoughtful lyrics that didn’t always fit into neat categories. His song “Suzanne” became a hit for Judy Collins, but wider popular fame like Judy Collins and Bob Dylan achieved, remained elusive for Cohen. A partnering with famed producer Phil Spector proved unsatisfying and Cohen found a better producing partner in John Lissauer
Cohen’s most famous song is thought to have as as many as 150 verses, which allows for its many versions. Cohen worked on the song for about seven years, a time that overlapped with his exploration of kabbalah and the Torah. He first performed it it was as a more sacred song, about King David, He recorded that version with producer John Lissauer in 1983 for his album “Various Positions,” an album that his label Columbia Records disliked and declined to release in the U.S. (although another label later did release it).
The label later dropped him, but Cohen kept working on the song. As he toured, the song lyrics evolved from sacred to secular, with some verses frankly sexual. Meanwhile, other musicians took note of the song. John Cale recorded a cover of it, combining verses from the sacred and secular versions, which was followed by Jeff Buckley’s recording of that version. A music producer working on the animated movie “Shrek,” took the Buckley version, sanitized the lyrics, and included it in the soundtrack. A phenomenon was born.
The documentary follows the song’s long and winding road, which took some very unusual turns. It might be true that at one point Leonard Cohen’s song was famous than he was, and certainly there are people who know the song and have no idea he wrote it. Many people who may never have heard of Leonard Cohen first became familiar with the song as part the sound track for the animated movie SHREK. The song has been included on countless other movie soundtracks, has been used for singing contests and has become a favorite at both weddings and funerals, often with singers or listeners unaware of its strange history.
It is a strange situation for such a revered songwriter but the success of the song enabled a wider audience for the musician later in his career, a satisfying outcome. Cohen himself was pleased with the success of the song, as he says in one of the many interviews in this fine documentary. We hear Cohen reflect on his song, the impact it had on his later life, with a kind of paternal pride that it has gone so far, a satisfying insight.
One intriguing aspect of the film are excerpts from Cohen’s song-writing journals, giving a rare glimpse into his process. Interviews also support this focus, delving deep into Cohen as a poet/songwriter and Jewish spiritual explorer. A long period of living at Zen monastery is followed by a return to Judaism and life as a musician. In featured interview clips, Cohen seemed at peace with his moderate career, as he returned to touring, enjoying an extra level of late-life fame that came with the popularity of “Hallelujah,” until his death at age 82 in 2016.
There is so much that is surprising, intriguing, and deeply insightful about Leonard Cohen’s life in this film, and co-directors Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine do a marvelous job of bringing all that out and weaving it all into an very enjoyable and informative experience.
HALLELUJAH: LEONARD COHEN, A JOURNEY, A SONG opens Friday, July 29, in theaters.
RATING: 4 out of 4 stars