‘Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song’ review: dissecting pop’s most-beloved ballad

If you don't like this film, then you don't really care for music, do you?

We’ve all got a ‘Hallelujah’ story. For this writer, Leonard Cohen’s most famous song represents the fragile beauty of musical bonding. An ex-fiancee first played me Jeff Buckley’s version on one of many long nights sitting up digging through our old CDs to sing along to, and it seemed to me to encapsulate the quasi-religious power of the secret chords we’d share with each other, the intrinsic marriage of music, trust, love and unspoken connection. When we broke up, I couldn’t listen to it for years. And so sitting through Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine’s moving exploration of the man and the song, Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song, was something of a trial.

The most remarkable story laid out in the film is, obviously, Cohen’s. In fascinating – and often surprisingly witty – archive interviews, he speaks candidly about the seven years he spent perfecting the song. He penned hundreds of potential verses before settling on his original version’s biblical evocation of love and sensuality, where the stories of King David and Samson and Delilah take on a holy romantic lustre. As the film follows his development from respected poet and author to cavern-voiced troubadour, this emotional behemoth of a pop hymnal begins to define his perfectionist artistic mindset, the poet forever honing his work in search of some unfathomable transcendence.

Leonard Cohen
Leonard Cohen in an archive Columbia Records press shot. CREDIT: Sony

And to think Cohen’s label, Columbia, initially failed to recognise the song’s brilliance, refusing to release its 1984 parent album ‘Various Positions’. The smaller Passport label were luckily willing to take it on, and soon ‘Hallelujah’ ceased to be Cohen’s baby. With Cohen touring a racier, more sexy version live, John Cale pieced together what would become the definitive version of the arrangement, mingling the mythical mystery of Cohen’s recorded version with some of the more carnal and emotional live verses. It was this magical edit that Jeff Buckley made his own on ‘Grace’ in 1994 – more archive interviews in the film find Buckley a little bashful about his take, thinking “it sounds like a boy singing it”. Other talking heads rightly compare it to an impassioned angel.

Even then, ‘Hallelujah’ remained an insider secret. It was only with its appearance in Shrek in 2001 that it made the leap to mainstream ubiquity, destined to be caterwauled by countless big-throated nobodies on The X Factor for decades to come, to the degree where Cohen himself suggested people should stop singing it.

It’s in telling the personal stories of those artists touched by the song, though, that the film finds its most touching impacts. Rufus Wainwright, who recorded a version that ended up on the Shrek soundtrack album but not in the film (John Cale’s version had that honour), tells of an unfamiliar song that found a place in the heart of his show. Brandi Carlisle speaks movingly of how the song’s combination of spirituality and base desire helped her reconcile herself with her sexuality. Kd lang’s powerful rendition at Cohen’s own memorial tribute concert (after a later life of theological searching with a zen master at a Mount Baldy retreat and a 2008 comeback driven by financial need, Cohen died in 2016 having given his tacit approval to this film) is so full of personal anguish that it blows all of those talent show mewlings clean out of the water, and a few world leader funerals and presidential inaugurations too.

There are as many ‘Hallelujah’ stories as people who’ve listened to it, of course, but in pinpointing a precious few, Hallelujah… does a fine job of unravelling just some of the song’s multitudes.

Details

  • Directors: Dan Geller, Dayna Goldfine
  • Featuring: Leonard Cohen, Nancy Bacal, Steve Berkowitz
  • Release date: September 16 (in UK and Irish cinemas)
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