This eagerly awaited (by me!) documentary tells some of Leonard Cohen’s personal story and an awful lot about his most popular song and how it came to be (trailer). The film was produced and directed by Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine, and thankfully, a number of people interviewed and recorded Cohen through his long career—talking, singing, schmoozing—which gave the filmmakers a lot to work with. As a result, you hear Cohen talking about many personal and career issues over time, and you see how they are reflected in his journal entries, where he’s groping for the words that would turn into “Hallelujah.”
Over a period of years there were many false starts with these lyrics, and, ultimately, many versions, an estimated 150-180 verses altogether! Cohen’s deep spirituality was in part rooted in his Jewish background, but he also spent several years at a Zen Buddhist monastery in California. Lyrics written early on were quasi-religious “a secret chord that David played and it pleased the Lord.” At some point, he worked on more secular verses: “Baby, I’ve been here before. I’ve seen this room; I’ve walked this floor.”
When the producers of the movie Shrek wanted to include the song in a melancholic moment, co-director Vicky Jenson says she “took out all the naughty bits”—tying to kitchen chairs and the like.
Amazingly, in retrospect, Various Positions—the album that contained “Hallelujah,” along with other memorable songs, including “Dance Me”—was rejected by Columbia Records, which refused to issue it. The producers found a small record label to bring out some copies, though meanwhile (if I caught this right) it was a hit overseas.
When artists like Bob Dylan, John Cale, Jeff Buckley, and others began singing “Hallelujah,” the song rose and rose in popularity. Film of Cohen’s overseas concert tour demonstrate that love of this song is practically universal. Why? To me, it had broad and timeless appeal because it operates on so many levels. The words are mysterious and open to interpretation, which appeals to the mind; its mix of broken-hearted sadness and joy speaks to the heart; the hymnlike quality resonates with the spirit, and some of the references are frankly libidinal.
Most appropriately, though I was becoming a little tired of the repeated excerpts of the song from different performers, the film ends with KD Lang’s version at Cohen’s memorial concert. That one, I would gladly have heard more of. (Here she is, in different performance.)
You might think one song is a rather slender reed to rest an entire movie on, and you’d be right. More interesting than “Hallelujah” was Cohen himself, who seems like a person whom it would have been be both a joy and a privilege to know. The interviews with a still-gorgeous Judy Collins, John Lissauer, the first producer of “Hallelujah,” and Larry “Ratso” Sloman, a long-time Rolling Stone reporter who covered Cohen for decades, were fascinating. Bottom line: I’m glad I saw it!
Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 87%; audiences: 95%.
The Leonard Cohen website
David Remnick’s 2019 profile in The New Yorker, “Leonard Cohen and the Divine Voice”