Leonard Cohen was at the height of his career when he finally finished “Hallelujah.” Well, the first version of “Hallelujah” – there would be many, many versions when all was said and done. He had worked on the lyrics for seven years. Yet when he submitted the album “Various Positions” to his longtime record label Columbia Records in 1984, company president Walter Yetnikoff decided not to release it in the United States. What would become Cohen’s seminal anthem was dead on arrival.
But in the new documentary “Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Songin theaters Friday, directors Dayna Goldfine and Dan Gellar examine how despite the odds, the song managed to come to life thanks, in varying degrees, to Bob Dylan, John Cale, Jeff Buckley and Shrek. Yes, Shrek. Today, four decades after its initial recording, it’s downright ubiquitous, a regular feature of movies, TV shows and singing competitions around the world.
It’s an interesting film that starts at the end – his last performance in 2013, singing “Hallelujah”, of course – and goes back to the start of his songwriting career to trace how he got there. It feels, in some ways, like two different movies: the first part is a standard biographical documentary that then focuses on the resurrection of “Hallelujah” outside of Cohen, before finally returning to Cohen and his triumphant final tour. As the title suggests, it’s a journey and a long journey.
The filmmakers are in love with their eloquent subjects, from Judy Collins and composer/arranger John Lissauer to a childhood friend and her 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 recordings of those interviews are used to let Cohen speak for himself. The stock footage is also quite extraordinary and elegantly paired with Cohen’s music.
Much of the film is dedicated to chronicling Cohen’s own spiritual journey and evolving relationship with his Jewish faith, from his poetry to his final years at a Zen center atop Mount Baldy. Singer Regina Spektor marveled at her kindness during her performance at Coachella in 2009, saying it was like Cohen was teaching the audience how to be good.
And yet, despite all the talk and praise for his research, it’s a film that seems utterly oblivious to the fact that he’s the father of two. We see pictures of them as babies with their mother during a casual mention that her family was separating. A reporter mentions the children later, but only in the context of clarifying that their mother Suzanne Elrod was not in fact the woman he was singing about in Suzanne.
There could be many reasons for this, including perhaps honoring the wishes of her adult children or wanting to focus on work. But the absence of any acknowledgment renders this attempt at a deep and holistic portrait of Cohen incomplete at best. There’s more time spent explaining the aesthetic of “Shrek” than his relationship with his children.
Or maybe they just weren’t really part of the path to “Hallelujah,” despite her daughter having a child with Rufus Wainwright, who is responsible for one of the song’s most famous covers, featured on the smash hit “Shrek”. soundtrack.
Much of the credit for the song’s extended lifespan goes to “Shrek”. Even though movie soundtracks have dwindled somewhat in cultural currency, it’s hard to underestimate the power of hearing a great song for the first time in a movie.
Interestingly, however, it was John Cale’s cover that became the most influential. He stripped down the arrangement, sat down on the piano, intoned the lyrics, and turned “Hallelujah” into a melodic anthem. Jeff Buckley even said that although Cohen wrote the song, it was Cale’s version that he covered. Nobody, it seems, from Brandi Carlile to Bono to Eric Church, sings Cohen’s version.
In an interview, after “Hallelujah” reached 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 it for a little while. Sloman thinks he was joking, but that doesn’t even matter at this point. The song got bigger than Cohen and seems destined to live in the culture for years to come.
“Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song,” a Sony Pictures Classics theatrical release Friday, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association for “brief strong language and sexual material.” Duration: 115 minutes. Two and a half out of four stars.
MPA Definition of PG-13: Parents Strongly Cautioned. Some content may be inappropriate for children under 13.
Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr