Documentary Review: ‘Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song’

Greetings again from the darkness. He’s not an easy man to figure out. His many written and spoken words can be challenging to interpret, and his art comes in many forms: poems, novels, drawings, and songs. Leonard Cohen was an enigma, yet also a treasure trove of thought-provoking work crafted over fifty years. Collaborators for more than 25 years, documentarians Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine knew tackling Cohen as a subject would be too much, so by taking inspiration from Alan Light’s book, “The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of ‘Hallelujah’”, they were able to approach him through his most recognizable and most oft-covered song, “Hallelujah.” The result is a captivating two hours that will appeal to Leonard Cohen devotees and enlighten those new to his work.

We open on December 21, 2013 in Auckland, New Zealand. Leonard Cohen is on stage and sings the immediately recognizable first “secret chord” line of “Hallelujah.” This would be his final live performance. Someone offers the description of LC as “a spiritual seeker”, and it appears to have been the case most of his life. Perhaps there is no better evidence of this than his pursuit of writing lyrics to “Hallelujah.” We see the dozens of notebooks with his handwritten lyrics. We know there are multiple versions of the song, and Leonard admits the song was never finished … it was ever-evolving, same as the writer. Although Cohen passed away in 2016 and was not interviewed for this film, precious archival footage allows us to see him expressing his own thoughts alongside new and recorded interviews of those who knew him for so long.

The great Judy Collins tells of the time she encouraged Leonard to come on stage and sing his song “Suzanne” with her. It was 1966 and though to that point, he had been mostly a poet, he now immersed himself and his words into songwriting. In regards to his poetry, so many believe one must suffer to have anything of value to say; however, Leonard was born into a wealthy family, and he created reems of meaningful passages as a deep thinker and observer. Other terrific interviews come courtesy of music journalist “Ratso” Sloman (who also shared tapes of his own Leonard interviews with the filmmakers), long time back-up singer and co-writer Sharon Robinson, Cohen’s former girlfriend and renowned photographer Dominique Isserman, lifelong friend and fellow Canadian Nancy Bacal, Canadian journalist and lifelong friend Adrienne Clarkson, and John Lissauer who first produced “Hallelujah” and also composed the score to this documentary.

The song itself took a journey worth exploring. Leonard initially worked on the lyrics for years. Once the song was recorded, it (and the entire album, ‘Various Positions’) was rejected by Columbia, the record label that had already paid for it. The album and song were finally released on a small independent label. Ultimately, Bob Dylan began performing the song in concert, and it was gradually adopted by other artists, and reached mainstream status when it was included in the animated hit movie, SHREK. How is that for an unusual journey for a song?

Even the SHREK saga wasn’t straightforward. Rather than use Cohen’s version of the song, the director chose the version sung by Rufus Wainwright, but then decided it didn’t fit, and shifted to the John Cale version. As a final twist, it’s Wainwright’s version on the released movie soundtrack. It’s not just the lyrics that have multiple versions. As of last count, more than 200 artists have their own version with those of John Cale and Jeff Buckley being the most frequently listened to. Both get their due in this documentary, and it’s quite moving to compare the different approaches … one’s mood must be the determining factor on which fits the moment, as it’s impossible to say one is “better” than the other. We also hear from other artists who testify to the song’s personal importance to them. And to reinforce the point of how the song has become part of the fabric of society, there is a montage of TV contestants singing their version in hopes of moving on to the next stage.

Although the filmmakers use “Hallelujah” as the structural force for this film, they expertly weave in Leonard Cohen’s personal history throughout. They remind us that his early song “Suzanne” was written well before he met and married Suzanne Elrod. We hear a bit from the cringe-inducing partnership with producer Phil Spector for one album. The filmmakers highlight Cohen’s 1993 decision to isolate at the Mount Baldy Zen Center through 1999, before returning ‘back down the hill’ to write more songs. It was in 2005 when Cohen discovered that his long time manager had bilked him out of his earnings and assets. This put Leonard back on tour for the first time in 15 years … he performed 379 shows over 5 years, thrilling his fans and introducing many new ones to his music.

There have been other documents focusing on Leonard Cohen, most notably, LEONARD COHEN: I’M YOUR MAN (2005), and MARIANNE & LEONARD: WORDS OF LOVE (2019). Both have their merits, yet neither capture the remarkable story of this ‘spiritual seeker’ as thoroughly as this one. He was an unusual and remarkable man who wrote, “I did my best. It wasn’t much.” Maybe the only false words he ever penned.

Opens in theaters beginning July 1, 2022

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