In 1984, Columbia Records president Walter Yetnikoff called Leonard Cohen into his office in New York City and told him, “Look, Leonard, we know you’re great, but we don’t know if you’re any good.” The tireless musician had just presented his label with his seventh studio album, “Variations,” which was a collection of songs like any other except it wasn’t: this was something more special, more spiritual. This was the record on which Cohen placed “Hallelujah,” a song he wrote over 80 draft verses for, with an estimated 250 versions of every single line. Yetnikoff didn’t get it. The album was never released in the U.S.
“Hallelujah” might bring to mind that ironic, quite comical incident with Yetnikoff and Columbia considering just how far that one word traveled thanks to Cohen, but the song has taken on such a life of its own that it might have come to you at any dozen other times over the last 27 years. While listening to John Cale rework his own secular version on piano. During a spellbinding acoustic performance from the late Jeff Buckley. As Alexandra Burke cried her way through it when she won the fifth series of “The X Factor” in 2008. Or, probably, it was Rufus Wainwright’s version on the soundtrack album for “Shrek.”
The track embarked on its own long and winding journey, searching for some kind of meaning among those who sang it and heard it to figure out what their life meant, if anything. But it was also emblematic of the twisty path of Leonard Cohen — as a man and an artist, a religious Jew and a horny human being — as he grappled with his faith and his purpose, writing and rewriting this song to connect with the holy and broken parts of himself and understand just what the hell he’s meant to be doing here.
“Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song” aims to tackle all these things at once — to tell Cohen’s multifaceted story before, during, and after he wrote that song, and to tell the song’s story long after it had cut ties from its maker. For two hours, it’s a lot. There are flashes of deep emotional resonance, of amusing coincidences, and smug vindication as Cohen ponders the “mild sense of revenge in my heart” when looking back on Yetnikoff’s initial assessment of what was arguably his life’s greatest work. But there’s also a huge amount of whiplash, as the wide-reaching documentary attempts to crystallize something as mercurial as this through performers, fans, lovers, haters, naysayers, believers.
The film starts with Cohen’s journey as a songwriter through interviews with the man himself and stories from those who knew and loved him best, before handing over to his “Hallelujah” disciples (including “spiritual chameleon” Bob Dylan, a cappella angel Jeff Buckley, and Americana artist Brandi Carlile, who learned what it meant to be “young, faithful, and gay” through this song) who then give the baton back to Cohen to guide us through the prolific last phase of his life. Directors Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine admit on the homestretch that they weren’t entirely certain whether they were making a movie about “Hallelujah” or about Leonard Cohen, and of course it’s both — yet the privilege of being granted access to so much archival material (audio and video interviews as much as diary entries, with Cohen having given the film his blessing in 2014 before his death) also creates some kind of chaos, an embarrassment of riches occasionally distracting from that one glittering relic lighting the road ahead.
But make no mistake, Cohen’s measured, contemplative voice still has the eerie immediacy of a ghost whispering in your ear, rather than any disembodied thing communicating from a distant past. And it’s the same with Buckley, as the young star shrugs from behind tousled hair and smouldering eyes that he wasn’t familiar with Cohen’s original “Hallelujah” — as if the spiritual only being standing between him and the song (Cale opted to rewrite a more secular version of Cohen’s lyrics with his first 1991 cover, picking out “the cheeky verses” which Buckley then replicated) was God himself.
The documentary here could have taken a screeching left turn towards melodrama, as interviewees wonder whether “Hallelujah” would have had the same legacy if Buckley had lived long enough to see it, having died at at 30 just three years after he first sang it. But the filmmakers know when to pause and let the music swell, as that haunting question hangs in the air instead of invoking any callous sense of kismet.
When looking back on Cohen’s life, too, Geller and Goldfine use musical chapters as stepping stones to pinpoint what made him tick, rather than the women the artist loved and lost (an error made in Nick Broomfield’s vapid 2019 doc “Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love”). But that still doesn’t make this movie the “definitive” portrait of Cohen — because to search for one at all would be to do him a disservice. To search for any one answer to explain the sacred magic of “Hallelujah” and the meticulous, torturous effort that got Cohen there would be to strip it of the very thing that makes it so precious. And so we join his journey, this song’s kaleidoscopic journey, for a brief moment in time — before it continues long after we’re gone.
“Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song” world premiered at the 2021 Venice Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.