Directors – Daniel Geller, Dayna Goldfine – 2021 – UK – Cert. 12 – 118m
The career of writer-turned-singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen, with particular emphasis on his best known song Hallelujah – out in UK cinemas on Friday, September 16th
There have been films about Leonard Cohen before, hardly surprising given his status as one of the major singer / songwriters of the twentieth century. This one falls between two stools.
On the one hand, it’s an attempt to document his career, and as such comes across as another Leonard Cohen movie which is fine as an introduction if you don’t know his career and music and I suspect fine for Leonard completists. As someone in the middle, this aspect seemed to be all talking heads treading mostly predictable ground.
On the other, it explores Cohen’s best known song Hallelujah, his struggles in writing it and how the piece ultimately took on a life of its own. This second aspect hasn’t been explored that widely to the best of my knowledge and proves a far richer seam into the mind, workings, practices and artistry of Cohen, making you wish the filmmakers had dumped much of the other material and explored this area at greater length.
Music journalist Larry “Ratso” Sloman, a long time friend of Cohen’s after first interviewing him for Rolling Stone, features a lot in the talking heads. Cohen himself does too, in much archive footage since at the time the filmmakers were working on the film, he was no longer giving interviews. As the directors point out in the press handouts, this works in the film’s favour since it gives you a feel for Cohen’s thoughts on particular subjects at various stages of his career. Ratso also provided access to Cohen’s extensive notebooks in which he honed his songs and says that as Cohen wrote it over the years, Hallelujah has in the region of either 180 or 150 verses.
Also key to the song is music producer John Lissauer, who as a young man in 1974 worked with Cohen on New Skin For The Old Ceremony and ten years later on his album Various Positions, notable both for being the one on which Hallelujah first appeared and the one that Columbia Records rejected at the time. This meant that when Cohen would play the song live, it was often the first time fans had heard it. John Cale recorded it for an album of Cohen cover versions by assorted artists called I’m Your Fan (a riff on Cohen’s album title I’m Your Man).
The then unknown Jeff Buckley later covered it in his 1992 live sets at Sin-é in New York City’s East Village and subsequently recorded it on Grace, the one album he made before his untimely death. Since the version of the song that most people heard first (including this writer) is Buckley’s cover, the documentary devotes quite a bit of space to him.
Also featured in Vicky Jensen, co-director of revisionist fairy tale animated movie Shrek (2001), who insisted the song, with all its complex moods, be used as the soundtrack to a particular scene. She and her colleagues cut out all the sexual references before handing it to Rufus Wainwright to sing, which recording appears on the film’s soundtrack album. However, eventually the John Cale version was used in the film itself. Nevertheless, the Wainwright version is probably the one that has been most widely heard.
A slew of additional performers have included the song in their live repertoires and made it their own. For Brandi Carlile, it helped reconcile her Christian faith with lesbian sexuality. Others covering the song have included Miles Kennedy, Eric Church, Amanda Palmer and Regina Spektor.
Cohen’s songs, and Hallelujah in particular, are extraordinary, and he remains a fascinating enigma. The filmmakers are to be congratulated for tracking down the various interviewees the highlights from among whom also include Judy Collins, who first got Cohen onto a stage to sing, Glen Hansard, the Irish musical genius behind Once (John Carney, 2007) and Shayne Doyle, who ran Sin-é between 1989 and 1996.
And yet, somehow despite the electrifying subject matter, the film fails to rise above feeling like an average if competent and adequate music documentary. It isn’t a transcendent piece that takes you into the mind of the artist in the way Moonage Daydream (Brett Morgen, 2022), coincidentally also out this week, does for David Bowie. Nor is it anything like as compelling as Marianne & Leonard: Words Of Love (Nick Broomfield, 2019) about Cohen and his relationship with an early muse.
Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song is out in cinemas in the UK on Friday, September 16th.