Documentarians Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine’s (Ballets Russes, The Galapagos Affair) latest feature is a fittingly lyrical, moving portrait of beloved singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen. Geller and Goldfine focus Cohen’s long musical career through the lens of his most enduring contribution to contemporary music – the poetic ballad “Hallelujah.” Because of its recognizability and legacy beyond Cohen’s original, the movie presents the song as taking on a life of its own. In this way, Hallelujah Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song both effectively honors the other artists that have performed the song and elucidate their spiritual link to Cohen.
A 1992 interview between Cohen and Larry “Ratso” Sloman opens the documentary and provides a consistent thread throughout. Cohen’s notebooks are also introduced as a visual motif; specifically, notebooks filled with the trial and error of writing “Hallelujah.” At one point Cohen said he had written 50 verses (and you already thought the song was long).
The documentary does not dwell on Cohen’s personal life; his lifelong friend Nancy Bacal is prominent and his long-time partner Dominique Isserman shows up for a talking head, but the interviews and footage are in service of the movie’s focus on his religious journey and his musical career. “Hallelujah” evolved from Cohen’s literary artistic blend and from his experiences as a sincere ethnic and religious Jewish Canadian.
“Hallelujah” is the perfect vehicle through which to describe Cohen’s journey. Other than the notebooks and hints in the movie’s introduction, the first segment in which “Hallelujah” itself is discussed does not show up until around 35 minutes into the movie. In the intervening time, Cohen’s background in poetry and literature is discussed in relation to his songwriting. As Cohen’s career moves forward, the audience can clearly see and hear the development in the man’s thoughts and writing that would eventually culminate in the final version.
An artist, especially the consummate artist Cohen, likely does not want to be known simply for one song. His musical career extended well into the 2010s, but most pop culture implies that he somehow peaked in 1984. This is not what the movie presents. It shows that Cohen remained a talent and a powerful writer until his death; “Hallelujah,” rather than being the one-hit peak, is shown in lyrics and effect to represent Cohen as a human and a thinker. As Cohen proposes in response to the inscrutability of the universe, “You either raise your fist or you say hallelujah. I try to do both.” “Hallelujah” certainly does both, and that may be what makes it so relatable.
After linking the song to Cohen’s tension between secular and religious thought, the movie provides the long historical journey for the song itself – from being initially Warner Bros’ed by Columbia Records (they rejected the album after production) to becoming a cultural icon and eventually being picked up by Dreamworks’ Shrek.
“Hallelujah” is the song that provides the right melodramatic tone for Shrek and Donkey’s second-act relationship crisis – although, as co-director Vicky Jenson points out, some work was needed to trim out the sexual overtones in Cohen’s original (the “naughty bits”). Shrek emphasizes the seemingly infinite customizability that has been utilized so effectively by “Hallelujah” cover artists and is instrumental in its evolution into a cultural phenomenon.
It’s the convergence of religion and sexuality that the movie shows to be encapsulated in Jeff Buckley’s famous 1994 rendition of the song. Buckley covers John Cale’s version of “Hallelujah” – one that cut some of the unnecessary dialogs from the lyrics and eliminated entirely the final verse containing the line about singing “before the Lord of song.” The movie calls Cale’s version the “secular” version. Cale’s version, arguably more recognizable than Cohen’s, still retains those deeply rooted elements of religious searching and emotion that make “Hallelujah” so chilling. The movie brilliantly presents the artists that have performed the song – Buckley, Cale, Bob Dylan, Brandi Carlisle, Rufus Wainwright, Glen Hansard, Alexandra Burke, Eric Church, and more – in view of their own existential ponderings and their connection to Cohen’s.
Another music documentary premiering in September 2022 may provide a trippier and more experimental experience (Brett Morgen’s Moonage Daydream), but this does not make Hallelujah any less worth your time to seek out. The movie’s dual subjects provide the perfect background to help you contemplate your own place in the universe. You will learn a great deal about a classic song and an innovative songwriter. Go see Hallelujah, get the song stuck in your head for a few days, then look it up on your chosen music streaming service and select your favorite version.