When an artist creates something, they retain little control over what happens next. It could be received warmly, coolly, or not at all. In some instances, it can be taken, reformed, and found in its new incarnation. In recent memory, streaming studio Netflix is responsible for resurging wide interest in artists Kate Bush and Metallica thanks to use of songs “Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God)” and “Master of Puppets,” inciting less familiar audiences to look into the source material. Of course, both artists have their fans, some with long memories, who have welcomed this resurgence, suggesting that even albums released in 1985 (Bush’s “Hounds of Love) and 1986 (Metallica’s “House of Puppets”) are not so out of touch or of interest to younger audiences. In a way, this is the central conceit of co-director Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine’s documentary Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song, itself an adaptation of author Alan Light’s book The Holy of the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley & the Unlikely Ascent of Hallelujah, a film which views the life of artist Leonard Cohen through the creation of and appropriation by other artists of his hit song “Hallelujah.”
According to the press notes, the materials within Hallelujah were approved by Cohen before his 80th birthday in 2014, a date of relative significance considering the singer had only recently stopped performing live in December of 2013. For nearly 50 years, Cohen entertained audiences as a singer, in many cases unknowingly being the muse for artists developing even now, producing 15 studio albums and 10 live albums, some posthumously. Through the use of archived materials, personal photos, talking head interviews, and news archives, Hallelujah uses Cohen’s most famous song as the through-line by which to explore Cohen’s life and, in so doing, unveils the sense that once art is put out into the world, it doesn’t matter how someone comes to it or what they take from it, as long as it’s being appreciated.
Over the course of a prologue, four chapters, and an epilogue, Geller and Goldfine lay one piece of information after another in their journey to the creation of the album “Various Positions,” an album which would feature “Hallelujah” but that Columbia Records didn’t think was a hit record, refusing to release it. Without getting into the data points themselves, Hallelujah is structured around the creation of the song and it’s spread, though it’s difficult to maintain that sense as so much of the first three chapters and the epilogue are concentrated on Cohen himself and his career. This translates to a slightly lack of focus on the part of the documentary, leading, at least this reviewer, to come to feel a strange sense of ownership over “Hallelujah” for Cohen instead of adopting his more carefree philosophy when the documentary shifts into the reach of the song. Interestingly, the aforementioned notes indicate that Hallelujah began as a project to explore the life of Cohen’s song, which has been performed as a means of commemorating large events like the COVID-19 memorial service in January 2021 and on televised programs like singer Alexandra Burke on X Factor in 2018. For some, like this reviewer, their notable first-time experience with the song is from the 2001 film Shrek, as sung by John Cale, the first to cover “Hallelujah” and the one who would set the song on its course to where it is now. Of course the soundtrack would feature Rufus Wainwright’s version and many are likely aware of singer Jeff Buckley’s version, yet it would be Cale who would be responsible for the songs widespread reach. Geller and Goldfine present each of these facts, especially by various interviewees (Buckley posthumously tells us, in modesty or embarrassment is unclear, that he hopes Cohen never hears his version, while Wainwright and singer Brandi Carlile identify Buckley as their resonant connection) without judgement or indication of their own ideas, their own reactions, to this taking over of Cohen’s song. Given the way Cohen himself is represented, a man of modesty and level-headedness, a man of art, poetry, and culture, one may take on the sense that Cohen himself is unattached from these covers, appreciating only that his song is reaching as wide an audience as possible. However, because of the structure of the documentary, whether one is a long-time fan of Cohen’s or is coming to learn of him through this film, the narrative is without a clear heading so, as mentioned, one may forget that the film isn’t about Cohen specifically, but the reach of his singular song.
What’s particularly strange and frequently feels lost amid the character profile of Cohen and the life of the song is the way in which others create their own meaning in his work. Cohen’s pre-music life isn’t covered outside of a few lines of information, focusing instead of his start as a musician, itself a birth of sorts, so the mention that he’s a Jewish Canadian is identified, but not fully explored regarding his upbringing. However, between the portions of information shared by Cohen’s personal rabbi, Mordecai Finley, and the inclusion of information regarding Cohen’s zen master Kyozan Joshu Sasaki, it wouldn’t take a line reading of Cohen’s version of “Hallelujah” to note the integration of the sacred and the profane and Cohen’s personal tribulation as these ideas butt against one another. Cale’s version, the one that became popularized from the Leonard Cohen 1991 cover album “I’m Your Fan,” is a secular version, removing much of the content that would ruffle feathers from general audiences. At no point in any of the interviews is this discussed by the singers who’ve covered the song; rather, they talk about how frequently they listened to the song, how it came to them, or how the audiences respond to their performance of it. They speak of the significance of the song to them without any mention of its source. In Cohen’s version, the term “Hallelujah” is as much a religious statement as it is a sexual one.. So when Geller and Goldfine present to us a montage of Simon Cowell-run productions that use the song (the documentary makes a point to show us footage of Cowell explaining how much he loves the song) and Burke’s rendition features Christmas iconography or another sequence has what looks like a church singing it, there comes a disconnect between capturing how the song is used and what that use means in a secular context. Personally, as a Jew, discovering that the song of a Jewish creator is being appropriated in a Christian context is, well, horrifying, especially when one considers that those singing it may not realize that it was conceived, written, and recorded by a Jewish man and, upon this realization, may not come to consider what it means that they’re recontextualizing his song.
Now, this reviewer is just as guilty as some of these singers. Until Stranger Things Season 4, I thought “Running Up That Hill” was a Placebo track and had not given it any further investigation. To me, hearing the original version is strange, even foreign, my brain unable to reconcile the two. Conversely, in my iTunes collection, I have Cohen’s, Wainwright’s, and Tori Kelly’s version of “Hallelujah.” Each one lives in harmony, their voices distinct enough, the versions attached to different soundtracks — Watchmen (2009), Shrek, and Sing (2016) — therefore given their own meaning and context. This, of course, lines up with what Geller and Goldfine present to the audience, that other artists are like us in the way they compartmentalize the music that inspires them. When juxtaposed against the very zen (in the most literal sense) Cohen, Hallelujah successfully presents the very natural and viral way in which art leaves the hands of the artists, becoming its own thing. Because of this, a song written over the course of years and released in 1983 on a small indie label is synonymous with granting glory to all. Because the directors don’t have a stance on this, allowing Cohen’s words to affirm this action, granting his song its own life outside of his own performances, the documentary often feels equally unsure. As mentioned, there even comes a sense within the audience to come to Cohen’s defense (though he doesn’t need or would’ve wanted it) as to remind people from where the song came and the journey it took to get released in the first place. In a strange way, to separate the song from the man feels like a broken hallelujah itself, but that’s merely this reviewer’s personal perspective and, if the evidence Geller and Goldfine present is authentic and not misconstruing Cohen, not at all how he’d feel. The art belongs to us all, given new meaning as it travels from person to person, land to land, beloved with or without awareness of its source. If Geller and Goldfine are correct, then it’s not a broken hallelujah, but a reaffirmation of one each time the song is sung.
In select theaters July 1st, 2022.
For more information, head to Sony Pictures Classics’s Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song webpage.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.