Leonard Cohen was at the height of his career when he finally finished “Hallelujah.” Well, the first version of “Hallelujah”: there would be many, many versions after all. He had spent seven years working on the lyrics. However, when he sent the album “Various Positions” to his record label Columbia Records in 1984, President Walter Yetnikoff decided not to release it in the United States. Cohen’s eventual revolutionary anthem was dead before it reached the hospital.
But in the new documentary “Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song,” which hits US theaters Friday, directors Dayna Goldfine and Dan Gellar examine how, despite the odds, the song managed to come to life, to… varying degrees, thanks to Bob Dylan, John Cale, Jeff Buckley and Shrek. Yes Shrek. Today, four decades after its original recording, it is simply ubiquitous, a staple of movies, TV shows and singing competitions around the world.
The interestingly stitched documentary begins with the finale, with his last performance in 2013 singing “Hallelujah”, of course, and goes back to the start of his songwriting career to trace how he got there. It feels, in a way, like two different films: the first part is a standard biographical documentary that then shifts the focus on the resurrection of “Hallelujah” beyond Cohen, before finally putting the spotlight back on the Canadian singer-songwriter and his triumphant final tour. As the title suggests, it’s a journey, and a long journey.
The filmmakers are in love with their eloquent interlocutors, from Judy Collins to composer/arranger John Lissauer, including a childhood friend and his rabbi Mordechi Finley. One of the main voices is journalist and writer Larry “Ratso” Sloman, who interviewed Cohen many times over 30 years and whose recordings of those interviews are used to let Cohen speak for himself. The visuals are also quite extraordinary and blend beautifully with Cohen’s music.
Much of the film is dedicated to chronicling Cohen’s own spiritual journey and evolving relationship with his Jewish faith, from his poetry to his final years at a Zen center atop Mount Baldy. Singer Regina Spektor raved about his kindness during her Coachella performance in 2009, saying it was like Cohen was teaching the audience to be kind.
Yet despite all the rhetoric and praise for his quest, it’s a film that seems completely oblivious to the fact that Cohen is a father of two. We see photos of them babies with their mother during an informal mention that their family was breaking up. A reporter mentions the children later, but only in the context of clarifying that their mother, Suzanne Elrod, was in fact not the woman he was singing about in “Suzanne”.
There could be many reasons for this, including the possibility of respecting the wishes of your adult children or wanting to focus on your work. But the absence of any acknowledgment renders this attempt at a deep and holistic portrait of Cohen incomplete at best. He spends more time explaining the aesthetic of “Shrek” than his relationship with his children.
Or maybe they just weren’t part of the road to “Hallelujah,” despite their daughter having a son with Rufus Wainwright, responsible for one of the most famous versions of the song that actually appears. on the “Shrek” soundtrack.
The documentary gives “Shrek” a lot of credit for the song’s extended lifespan. Although movie soundtracks have somewhat declined as a cultural currency, it’s hard to underestimate the power of hearing a great song for the first time on film.
Interestingly, however, it seems to have been John Cale’s version that became the most influential. Cale broke down the arrangement, picked up the piano, sang the lyrics, and turned “Hallelujah” into a melodic anthem. Jeff Buckley even said that although Cohen wrote the song, his version was inspired by Cale’s performance. It seems that no one, not Brandi Carlile, Bono, or Eric Church, sings Cohen’s version.
In an interview, after “Hallelujah” hit No. 1 (along with The X Factor contestant Alexandra Burke’s version), No. 2 (Jeff Buckley) and No. 36 (Cohen) on popular charts in the UK United in 2008, Cohen said he thought “people should stop singing it for a while”. Sloman thinks he was joking, but at this point it hardly matters. The song has grown bigger than Cohen and seems destined to live on in the culture for years to come.
“Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song”, a release from Sony Pictures Classics, is rated PG-13 (warning that parents may be inappropriate for children under 13) by the Motion Picture Association of America ( MPAA) for “brief strong language and sexual material.” Duration: 115 minutes. Two and a half out of four stars.
Lindsey Bahr is on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ldbahr
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