“Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song” is a documentary about the Leonard Cohen song “Hallelujah,” and if that sounds like a lot of movie to devote to one song — well, “Hallelujah” is a lot of song. The way we think of it now, it’s epic and lovely and trancelike: a hymn cast in a pop idiom. You might call it a feel-good hymn for a secular society, because the word “hallelujah” has obvious religious connotations, and part of the reason that people feel so good listening to “Hallelujah,” or singing along with it in oversize stadiums, is that the song says to its audience: If you find this beautiful (and really, who doesn’t?), then you’re a spiritual person.
The documentary, which was directed, written, photographed, and co-edited by the team of Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine, is also a portrait of Leonard Cohen, who in a career that spanned half a century (he died in 2016) may have been the ultimate idiosyncratic pop-star-who-wasn’t-really-a-pop-star-except-that-he-so-was. Born into a wealthy Jewish family in a suburb of Montreal, he started off as a poet, and remained one. Yet when he began to set his words to music, he made them sing with a flukier magic than Bob Dylan. Cohen’s voice was a low-pitched drone, a stranger to any kind of vibrato, direct and becalmed; it seemed to scrape the bottom of the ocean and get to the heart of things. Songs like “Suzanne” and “Sisters of Mercy” cast a gravely tuneful and radiant spell, and Cohen himself was sexy in a rapt Canadian Pacino-meets-Serge Gainsbourg way — a clean-cut troubadour, a professor of lyric enchantment.
When he began to work on “Hallelujah,” he kept writing verses, filling notebooks with perhaps 180 of them, and the song literally took years to complete. Cohen didn’t do this with other songs. It’s as if he knew that with “Hallelujah” he wasn’t just writing a song but birthing it. Yet part of the alchemy of “Hallelujah” is that, over time, the song it turned into isn’t the one that it started out as. The song took a journey — changing, becoming, acquiring layers of soul and enchantment. And I’m far from alone in having experienced that evolution in a strange kind of reverse order.
To state the obvious: A great many people got to know “Hallelujah” from “Shrek,” the 2001 DreamWorks animated fairy tale where it was used to lend a surprisingly wistful and melancholy dimension to the story of a cantankerous green ogre. (In the film, “Hallelujah” expresses the thawing of his heart.) The version of the song heard in “Shrek” is by John Cale, the former member of the Velvet Underground (though the soundtrack version, for synergistic corporate reasons, is by Rufus Wainwright, who directly imitated Cale’s version). A Cale rendition of the song had appeared on his 1992 live solo album “Fragments of a Rainy Season” (one of my favorite records), but even as Cale was performing it in concert to spellbound audiences, it remained, in the larger world, a well-kept secret.
Then Jeff Buckley got ahold of it. He began to perform it at Siné, the cave-in-the-wall East Village coffeehouse that Buckley, accompanying himself on a Fender Telecaster, made into a cozy cult venue. His version of the song was even slower and dreamier: a meditation that allowed Buckley’s voice to soar into the heavens. Buckley died in 1997, the victim of a tragic drowning accident, and it’s the documentary’s contention — presented not insensitively but simply as what happened — that his death played a key role in elevating “Hallelujah.” Buckley, who had the look of an indie-rock Jim Morrison and the voice of a tremulous angel, had been on the cusp of becoming a major star, and partly because so many of his fellow musicians revered him, new attention was paid to “Hallelujah.” It began to be covered almost in homage to Buckley, and the song now took on the quality of an anthem. Which may well have led to its use in “Shrek.”
But what about, you know, the original version by Leonard Cohen? The film captures how he sweated over the lyrics, with their waltz-like rhythm and mystery (‘I’ve heard there was a secret chord,/That David played and it pleased the Lord,/But you don’t really care for music, do ya?”). It also chronicles how, after a long break with the composer and producer John Lissauer (the two were in the middle of writing an album together when Cohen took off on a whim and ghosted him for eight years), Cohen then reunited with Lissauer to record “Various Positions,” the 1984 album with “Hallelujah” on it.
In the 2000s, after “Hallelujah” had become a thing, I was someone who owned a handful of Leonard Cohen albums, two of which I thought of as soundtracks: his first, the great “Songs of Leonard Cohen” (1967), which was used with tranquil majesty in Robert Altman’s “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” and “The Future” (1992), several tracks of which carved out a majestic layer of pop gravitas in Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers.” Yet I’d never encountered “Various Positions,” so I got a copy of it, eager to hear the version of “Hallelujah” performed by Cohen, the man who wrote it.
It was one of the biggest letdowns of all time.
John Lissauer is interviewed in the documentary, and he seems like a hale fellow, but I’m sorry, his arrangement and production of “Hallelujah” is lurchingly bombastic and unlyrical. You can listen to it countless times and it never acquires the magic we associate with the song. When Walter Yetnikoff, the head of Columbia, first heard the album, he disliked it so much that he refused to release it in the U.S. That became an infamous decision, and the film recounts a legendary anecdote in which Yetnikoff told Cohen, “Look, Leonard, we know you’re great. But we don’t know if you’re any good.” Yet though the album should by all means have been released, there was a gut instinct to Yetnikoff’s judgment. “Various Positions,” unlike Cohen’s best work, didn’t have a sound to match its vision. It really was John Cale who co-created the “Hallelujah” we know, using simple rolling piano chords and plaintive vocals to invest it with a mystic shimmer.
In “Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song,” we hear a lot of good Leonard Cohen anecdotes, like one about how he was pressured to change his last name, and almost did (to Leonard September), but realized: Why should he be anyone but himself? Composing those endless lyrics to “Hallelujah,” he wound up in his underwear in a “shabby hotel room” at the Mayflower banging his head on the floor and saying, “I can’t do it anymore.” The creation of “Death of a Ladies Man,” the 1977 album that Cohen made with Phil Spector, becomes a fascinating lesson in how everything that shouldn’t go wrong can. And there are lively observations from the world-class raconteur Larry “Ratso” Sloman, who got to know Cohen when he profiled him for Rolling Stone, and Judy Collins, who knew him early on (in a clip from 1966, we hear her perform “Suzanne,” and it’s stunning). The documentary follows Cohen on his haphazard odyssey of a life — the tales of womanizing, the way he lost his money, the years he spent living in a Buddhist monastery, and his comeback as a graying legend in a fedora, playing to huger audiences than he’d ever had.
By the end of his life, the song “Hallelujah” had become such a sensation that a tiny part of you may almost wish it hadn’t. Yet there’s a glory to this tale. For years, Leonard Cohen toiled like a monk on a modern hymn, which was released into utter obscurity, then grew into a very different song — becoming, just maybe, the song it always was. “Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey…,” which premiered last month at the Venice Film Festival, is still looking for a distributor, and it deserves one. There’s totally an audience for a music doc this rich (though it could use a catchier title), one about how a quiet artist, without planning to, created a song heard round the world.