On film: Leonard Cohen’s journey culminates in ‘Hallelujah’

( PG-13 ) ( Monitor Movie Guide )
Courtesy of the Cohen Estate
Leonard Cohen prepares for a tour more than a decade ago. “Hallelujah,” his most celebrated song, has been called “a modern prayer.”

I’m usually dubious whenever a singer-songwriter is characterized as some kind of spiritual seeker. But if ever there was someone who deserved that description, it’s Leonard Cohen. The new documentary “Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song” amply demonstrates, through multiple interviews and archival material spanning decades, just how deeply personal, oftentimes almost sacramental, his music-making could be. As the record executive Clive Davis says in the film, “No one walked in his path. He didn’t walk in anybody else’s path.”

Rather than structure their movie as a chronological biography, the co-directors, Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine, wisely focus on the genesis of Cohen’s most celebrated and performed song, “Hallelujah.” This approach allows them to interweave Cohen’s entire career while also avoiding the one-thing-after-another sprawl that often bogs down these kinds of films.

How did Cohen come to write “Hallelujah”? Not quickly. It took him seven years, and hundreds of drafts of alternate lyrics, before he unveiled the song in 1984. By pop-rock standards, Cohen, who died in 2016 at age 82, was always a late bloomer. Born into an Orthodox Jewish family in Montreal, he began his career as a renowned poet and novelist and didn’t compose or perform music until he was in his early 30s. “Hallelujah” was included – on Side B! – in his 1984 album “Various Positions,” but record executives were so dismissive of the disc that they only released it outside the United States. (It was subsequently picked up without fanfare by a small independent label.) Walter Yetnikoff, then-president of CBS Records, told Cohen, “We know you’re great, but we don’t know if you’re any good.” 

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Leonard Cohen spent seven years perfecting his most celebrated song, “Hallelujah.” A new documentary uses the birth of that piece to lay out the musician’s spirituality – and hope.

It was only in 1991, when Velvet Underground co-founder John Cale performed a version of “Hallelujah,” drawing on some of Cohen’s alternate lyrics, that the song gained traction. Three years later, in a plaintive performance best described as angelic, Jeff Buckley recorded it for his “Grace” album. Bob Dylan covered it. And then, in 2001, it was featured in, of all things, “Shrek,” with Cale’s version on the soundtrack. (The double platinum movie album featured Rufus Wainwright instead.) The song has subsequently been covered innumerable times – my favorite is k.d. lang’s powerhouse rendition, briefly excerpted in the movie – and it’s become a mainstay at weddings, and, alas, on “American Idol” and “The Voice.”  

Dan Geller/Sony Pictures Classics
Brandi Carlile, who has performed “Hallelujah,” talks about her connection to it in the film.

Despite all this exposure, it’s never been entirely clear what the song, with its mix of the spiritual and the secular, actually means. It’s a resonant riddle. Cohen speaks directly to God in it and also to his own deepest desires, referencing everything from his own lost loves to David and Bathsheba. But perhaps this is a song that doesn’t gain with explication. Cohen refused to spell things out. He says in the film, “If I knew where songs come from, I’d go there more often.” Heard in a live concert, the chorus of “Hallelujah!” that periodically surfaces is so overpowering that clearly it touches audiences of every faith, or none. As the singer Regina Spektor says, “You get this feeling of hearing a modern prayer.”

You certainly get that feeling watching Cohen perform the song in front of an audience, especially in the concert clip we see near the end of his life. He looks to be in a state of rapt contemplation. But he can also be raspy and insinuating, beseeching, doomy yet rife with hope. He’s working out his feelings about the mystery of life, right there in front of us.

Cohen was a voluminously complicated man, but he must have felt, on some private level, that this song was his apotheosis. As the film concludes, he offers up, if such a thing is possible, a kind of summation. He says, “You look around and you see a world that is impenetrable, that cannot be made sense of. You either raise your fist or you say ‘Hallelujah.’ I try to do both.”

Peter Rainer is the Monitor’s film critic. “Hallelujah” is available in some cities starting July 1. The film is rated PG-13 for brief strong language and some sexual material. 

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