Leonard Cohen was deep in his career when he finally finished “Hallelujah”. Well, the first version of “Hallelujah” – there would be many, many versions if all was said and done. He had toiled on the lyrics for seven years. But when he turned in the album Different Positions to his longtime record company Columbia Records in 1984, the company’s president, Walter Yetnikoff, decided not to release it in the US. What would become Cohen’s seminal anthem was dead on arrival.
But in the new documentary Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Songin theaters, directors Dayna Goldfine and Dan Gellar explore how the song has taken on a life of its own despite all its setbacks, thanks in varying degrees to Bob Dylan, John Cale, Jeff Buckley and Shrek† Yes, Shrek†
Now, four decades after its first recording, it’s downright ubiquitous, a regular fixture in movies, television shows, and singing competitions around the world.
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It’s an interestingly stitched together film that starts at the end – his last performance in 2013, singing “Hallelujah” of course – and rewinds to the beginning of his songwriter career to trace how he got there. It feels like two different movies in a way: the first part is a standard biographical documentary that then shifts the focus to the resurrection of “Hallelujah” outside of Cohen, before finally turning the attention back to Cohen and his triumphant final tour. As the title says, it’s a journey and a long one.
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The filmmakers are enamored with their eloquent subjects, from Judy Collins and composer/arranger John Lissauer to a childhood friend and his rabbi Mordechi Finley.
One of the main voices is journalist and author Larry “Ratso” Sloman who has interviewed Cohen many times over 30 years and whose tapes of those interviews are used to let Cohen speak for himself. The archive footage is also quite extraordinary and elegantly combined with Cohen’s music.
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Much of the film is devoted to describing Cohen’s own spiritual journey and his evolving relationship with his Jewish faith, from his poetry to his later years in a zen center atop Mount Baldy. Singer Regina Spektor marvels at his courtesy during his 2009 Coachella performance, saying it was like Cohen was teaching the audience how to be good.
And yet, for all the talk and praise for his quest, this is a film that seems totally disinterested in the fact that he is the father of two children. We see photos of them as babies with their mother during an awkward mention of his family breaking up. A reporter later names the children, but only to clarify that their mother Suzanne Elrod was not, in fact, the woman he sang about in Suzanne.
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There could be many reasons for this, including possibly fulfilling the wishes of his adult children, or wanting to focus on work. But in the absence of any recognition, this attempt at a deep, holistic portrait of Cohen feels incomplete at best. More time is spent explaining the aesthetics of Shrek than his relationship with his children.
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Or maybe they just weren’t really part of the path to “Hallelujah,” although his daughter did have a child with Rufus Wainwright, who is responsible for one of the song’s better-known covers, featured on the hugely successful Shrek soundtrack.
High praise for the song’s extended life is given to Shrek† While movie soundtracks have declined somewhat in cultural currency, it’s hard to underestimate the power of hearing a great song in a movie for the first time.
Interestingly, however, it seems to have been John Cale’s cover that became the most influential. He stripped down the arrangement, took the piano, boomed out the lyrics and turned “Hallelujah” into a melodious folk song. Jeff Buckley even said that even though Cohen wrote the song, it was Cale’s version he was covering. It seems that nobody from Brandi Carlile to Bono to Eric Church is singing Cohen’s version.
In an interview, after “Hallelujah” was placed No. 1 (The X Factor contestant Alexandra Burke), No. 2 (Jeff Buckley) and No. 36 (Cohen) in the UK in 2008, Cohen said he thought, “People should stop singing for a while.” Sloman thinks he was joking, but right now it doesn’t even matter. The song grew bigger than Cohen and seems destined to live on in the culture for years to come.
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