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Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song

Directors: Daniel Geller, Dayna Goldfine (USA). Year of Release: 2021

Auckland, New Zealand. December 21st 2013. A group of ageing musicians wearing fedoras and grey suits are on stage. In the centre stands 79-year old Leonard Cohen. He is singing Hallelujah, the song which by then was more famous than he was. This is the last time that he was to perform the song live. Auckland was his last ever concert. Cohen died 3 years later.

Hallelujah, the film, is divided into 4 parts and an epilogue. The film tells 4 stories, each of which roughly corresponds to a part. We start with the release of Beautiful Losers, a novel written when Cohen (aged 32) was already a successful poet. Invited onto television to promote the book, he brings along a guitar. The tv producers indulge him, thinking that they’ll let the artist from a rich Montreal neighbourhood have his bit of fun, before they go on to talk about the important things.

After Judy Collins helps him overcome his initial stage fright, Cohen becomes a star. Some people advise him to find a new surname because Jews only succeed in the entertainment industry when they change their name. We see him brush off a question by a tv interviewer who says that Cohen sounds too “ordinary” (that’ll be it). He says, actually he’s considering changing his name to September. “Leonard September”? No, September Cohen, he answers, a smile flickering on his lips.

The problem with the opening sequence, which takes up nearly half the film, is that it doesn’t seem very interested in Cohen’s songs. Some appear in the background with little analysis. This would be a blessing with most writers, but Cohen’s songs are so exceptional in part because they’re obviously the work of a published poet. But the film seems to be in too much of a hurry to get to what it is most interested in – a look at the gradual success of Cohen’s 1984 song.

This leads us to the second story, how the song, and the album Various Positions on which it was released, were at first almost universally ignored. Cohen’s US record label Columbia even refused to release the album. The way Cohen tells it, the label boss told him that they weren’t happy with the mix, and Cohen told him to go and mix it himself then. This is how a masterpiece was ignored for well over a decade.

It’s a nice tale, but it’s not the whole story. Various Positions was possibly the first Cohen album I bought around the time it came out. Although I now see that it contains magnificent tracks like Dance Me to the End of Love, If It Be your Will, and, of course Hallelujah, it didn’t grip me. I only played it a couple of times before returning to the earlier stuff. I played it again after watching the film. The production is indeed terrible, making It relatively easy to overlook the few good songs.

Anyway, for whatever reason, the song didn’t take off, despite Cohen spending at least 7 years (probably more) working on it. It’s fascinating to see his notebooks with words crossed out and replaced by one that sounds slightly better, or of individual lines added later. By the time the song was finished, Cohen had between 150 and 180 verses. He then pared it down till he found a version which reflected his twin interests of Old Testament theology and slightly sordid sex.

The film still does not say much about the complex lyrics, apart from a couple of vague references to spirituality. We hear one argument for why this might be: Cohen is offering us a secret chord that even he doesn’t quite understand. Cohen’s rabbi explains the Jewish idea of being possessed with a sense of the Lord. Trying to explain this sense would be like dancing about architecture. Fair point, but if so, do we really need all these talking heads, most of who aren’t telling us anything?

Although Cohen’s version of Hallelujah remained largely unheard, other versions started to appear. Bob Dylan played it in his live set. John Cale made a piano-based version on the 1991 tribute album I’m Your Fan. Cale gained access to the original 180 (or however many) verses, and chose those without religious references. A couple of years later, Jeff Buckley recorded a spectacular version on his renowned album Grace. The song thus twice reached a whole new audience of Indie fans.

Then, in 2001, Shrek happened. The musical director was a Cale fan, and asked Rufus Wainwright to record a new sanitised version without any of the sexy bits. In the end, they used Cale in the film but the Wainwright version appeared on the soundtrack. Another successful career was launched. As millions of people bought the soundtrack, the song also became a regular on tv talent shows. We hear several versions here, and the results are not pretty (although a couple are ok).

We come to the final story – the resurrection of Cohen’s live career. This was in part a necessity after his manager ran away with all his money. We see his first concert in 15 years. Cohen is 74 and looks older. By the time the tour has been going for 2½ years, the audience is getting bigger all the time, and he looks positively spritely, bouncing off the stage at the end of a 3 hour concert. Hallelujah is a staple at all of these concerts-

Just before the Epilogue, we see a concert in Tel Aviv, which Cohen concludes by urging for peace between Israel and Palestine. This is only part of the story. To play the concert, Cohen broke the cultural boycott of Israel, leading Amnesty International to withdraw involvement. Besides, calling for peace is easy. Everyone wants peace. Cohen’s well-meaning gesture helped normalise Israel’s occupation. The directors may not agree with this view, but including the footage is disingenuous.

Hallelujah is at least 2 excellent films which keep getting in each other’s way. There is the history of Cohen’s very interesting development from poet to singer, taking in a five year spell in a Buddhist monastery, which I haven’t had time to mention yet. And there’s a story of a song which clearly shows that popularity and quality are not the same thing at all. Both stories are told too briefly, with too little inquisitiveness. It’s still a good film, but it could have been great.

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