Some songwriters knock out a classic in a few minutes, for legendary Leonard Cohen it can take a lot longer. His most beloved and enduring song, Hallelujah, took him about a decade to complete. There are nearly 200 different verses he filled notebooks with before even recording it. Even then, it is a later version of the song that has endured.
Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine set their eyes on this one song and use it to paint a portrait of Cohen in Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A journey, A song. Like that long and odd title, the film is a bit unfocused, unsure of what it wants to be. If the documentary wanted to be about the evolution of this very famous song, covered by endless artists, then it spends far too much time on the rest of Cohen's life and career. If it wanted to be about Cohen's life and career, then it spends far too much time on one song. Somewhere in between these two is where the film sits and thus it isn't completely satisfying. However, when focused on this amazing song Geller and Goldfine offer a unique window into the evolution of a popular song.
The film begins with Cohen's wealthy upbringing in Montreal. Cohen was a successful poet before moving into songwriting. Hallelujah traces his attempts at music, his drinking and depression, and his late-stage victory lap playing giant festivals like Coachella. All of this has been covered in other documentaries about Cohen so I am going to focus more on the unique things that the film brings to Cohen's story.
Inspired by gospel music and preachers, the song first appeared on Cohen's 1984 album Various Positions. The execs at Columbia hated the album so much that it was never released in the US. This version of the song is the most religious version and it would have likely died if it hadn't been for a Cohen tribute album. John Cale, from The Velvet Underground, covered the song for the album and teased out more of the profane elements of Cohen's live versions of the song. He blended the sacred and the secular in a powerful way and it is this version that remains today. It is this version that was covered by Jeff Buckley, my personal favorite cover of the song.
The song has been covered by Bono and perhaps most famously by Rufus Wainwright for the Shrek soundtrack. It is Shrek that helped reignite Cohen and give him a late-career resurgence so maybe that animated kid's film ain't all bad. However, it is that shortened and neutered version that is sung all the time by contestants on American Idol and The Voice.
Cohen remains mysterious here as if directors Geller and Goldine were unable to find an in-road to what makes him a great songwriter. The film is likely more for the fans as a result. If you love this song, you will probably enjoy the film. It is kind of curious to have a documentary about a song and if Hallelujah had focused more on the song and tried less to be a capsule of Cohen's life, it may have been more successful. As a music fan, I still found plenty to enjoy here but I do wish the film's pacing had been tightened up. Given that the filmmakers felt the need for a full portrait of Cohen, the film is bloated at two hours.
The song Hallelujah is magical, a truly great song. Fans can never truly know what goes into writing a classic song. Perhaps if we could, it would ruin the mystique and power a song can have.