Like the blind men of lore groping to understand an elephant by focusing on a tail or a tusk or an ear, filmmakers have tended to approach the late singer, songwriter, poet and novelist Leonard Cohen in bits and pieces. Lian Lunson looked at his career through the lens of a 2005 tribute concert in “Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man,” Tony Palmer’s “Leonard Cohen: Bird on a Wire” was a long-lost chronicle of a single European tour in 1972 and Nick Broomfield’s “Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love” is as much about Broomfield’s own relationship with one of Cohen’s muses, Marianne Ihlen.
And now there’s Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine’s “Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, a Song,” which premiered at the Venice and Telluride Film Festivals on Thursday. It purports to be about a single Cohen song – the single Cohen song in the eyes of the masses, I suppose – though it ends up encompassing far more than that.
The song, of course, is “Hallelujah,” a 1984 meditation that moves with ineffable grace and can be read as an uplifting hymn to the spirit, a wry paean to the flesh or a combination thereof. It’s a bottomless song that begins with the lofty and seemingly reverent proclamation, “Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord that David played and it pleased the Lord” and then punctures it with an immediate punchline: “But you don’t really care for music, do ya?”
Written by Cohen during a rough stretch in his career, then reworked by John Cale, who had access to the 100-plus unused verses Cohen had written for the song, “Hallelujah” is routinely and solemnly trotted out at big events and on televised singing contests; it’s thornier and funnier than most of those renditions let on, but it has survived and prospered maybe because it’s so easy to underestimate.
“Hallelujah” the film, though, is here not to underestimate “Hallelujah” the song, but to bask in it, to explore it and to use it as a jumping-off point to explore Leonard Cohen himself. More so than the 2012 book that inspired it, Alan Light’s “The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley and the Unlikely Ascent of ‘Hallelujah,’” it looks well beyond the song to the man who wrote it, which makes it both less focused and less repetitive.
In fact, the first hour of “Hallelujah” isn’t much about “Hallelujah.” After some concert footage from 2013 and the song’s original music video from the 1980s (how young and callow Cohen looks, even though he was in his 50s at the time!), the movie sinks into history – how Cohen, a Canadian poet and novelist, turned to writing and (reluctantly) singing songs in the late 1960s.
The early stretches can be a bit scattershot, but they also offer rich details, as in a sequence about Cohen’s Judaism set to the haunted “Who By Fire,” a listing of ways to die inspired by a 13th-century poem used in the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur liturgies.
The film focuses on some albums (“Songs From a Room,” “New Skin for the Old Ceremony”) and skips over others (“Songs of Love and Hate,” “Recent Songs”), and then finds its key moment at the beginning of its second half, when Cohen records the essential “Various Positions” album but has it rejected by Columbia Records chief Walter Yetnikoff, who died in August of this year. The album contained not just “Hallelujah” but also “Dance Me to the End of Love,” which opened nearly every one of Cohen’s concerts for the rest of his life, and “If It Be Your Will,” a prayer every bit the equal of “Hallelujah” – but Yetnikoff said no, so it ended up being released first in Europe, then on a small indie label in the U.S.
And “Hallelujah,” which emerged after years of writing and an estimated 150 different verses, didn’t take on a life of its own until John Cale recorded it for a Cohen tribute album in 1991. Cale asked to see the verses Cohen didn’t use and created a new version of the song; he used Cohen’s first two verses and then replaced the original record’s final two verses with three others he found in the notebooks. “I did the cheeky verses,” says Cale, more comfortable singing about sex than religion.
(For all the talk of those hundreds of verses, virtually every other recording of the song has used some combination of Cohen’s four original verses and Cale’s three additions; we glimpse some of the others in notes that are shown on screen, but they haven’t been recorded.)
Cale’s version turns out to be a breakthrough for “Hallelujah” mostly because Jeff Buckley included his own take of it on his “Grace” album in 1994, which brought the song to an entirely new audience. And after Buckley – and a subsequent use in “Shrek,” of all places – the floodgates opened, for good and for bad.
While the good includes k.d. lang’s majestic rendition that ends the film, a montage of versions from various singing competitions is scary enough that you understand why Cohen himself once half-heartedly called for a moratorium on performances.
The film doesn’t turn into a chronicle of who performed “Hallelujah,” which was the weakest part of Light’s book; instead, it veers back into biographical territory, following Cohen’s resurgence with the “I’m Your Man” album, his years in a Zen retreat on Southern California’s Mt. Baldy, the loss of nearly all his money at the hands of a crooked business manager and his subsequent triumphant return to the road, where his remarkable concerts were seen by enraptured audiences around the world.
The result is an affectionate and open-hearted tribute to Cohen and his work, with an emphasis on the one song that might lure in the occasional uninitiated viewer. The song “Hallelujah” may be the way into Cohen’s world, but that world is far richer and more singular than any one song, and the filmmakers are looking for the big picture here.
Does the film explain “Hallelujah?” Of course not – the song stubbornly resists explanation, because it’s so many different things and because there’s a beautiful mystery at its heart. “Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song” is smart enough to embrace that mystery and that beauty, and to know that there’s far more to Cohen than can be summed up in four, or seven, or even 150 verses.