How Did ‘Hallelujah’ Become a Classic? A New Leonard Cohen Doc Explains Why.

·5 min read
8 - Credit: Courtesy the Cohen Estate/Sony Picture Classics
8 - Credit: Courtesy the Cohen Estate/Sony Picture Classics

Vintage songs are regularly remade, sampled and, most recently, interpolated into new ones. But even in that context, the saga of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” remains singular. A song that was initially rejected and ignored by the music business in the Eighties has, over the last two or three decades, become a go-to pop hymn for TV talent shows, soundtracks, even a Saturday Night Live sketch. For a long time, “Suzanne” was in the running as Cohen’s leading contribution to the post-rock pop repertoire. “Hallelujah” has now overtaken it: Pick nearly any genre, and you’ll find someone in singing it, whether or not they’re attuned to its knotty, elliptical lyrics.

That story is ably unfurled in Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song, co-directors Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine’s new documentary on the tune that refuses to go quietly into the night. Inspired by writer Alan Light’s 2012 book The Holy or the Broken, it tracks the protracted origins of the song (Cohen supposedly cranked out as many as 180 verses) and the roles that Bob Dylan, John Cale, and the late Jeff Buckley played in resurrecting it. It then takes us right up to modern times, with the likes of Brandi Carlile and Eric Church each eloquently discussing the appeal of the song and what made them tackle it onstage. Along the way, we’re reminded of all the different cracks at it, from U2’s and k.d. lang’s to all the horrifically oversung renditions that flooded American Idol, The X Factor and their ilk starting in the 2000s. (If any song does not need to be a melisma showcase, it’s “Hallelujah.”)

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The basic arc of that story is familiar by now, but Hallelujah nonetheless adds to this ugly-pop-duckling success story. More clearly than ever, we’re able to see the secular changes Cohen made to the largely spiritual original lyric after he began performing it live, as well as the verses Cale chose and the ones that the makers of Shrek decided were suitable for an animated kids’ movie. There are also plenty of fascinating tidbits for Cohenologists. Various Positions, the 1984 Cohen album that included “Hallelujah,” was turned down by his label, Columbia (Cohen wryly discusses this in an interview clip from Richard Belzer’s Eighties talk show) and only slipped out by way of an indie label. In the doc, that album’s producer, John Lissauer, talks about how that incident made him give up producing records. On the topic of Shrek, which introduced “Hallelujah” to its youngest audience ever, Rufus Wainwright amusingly recalls the “backroom deal” that led to Cale’s version being used in the film but Wainwright’s remake winding up on the soundtrack. (And all these years later, it’s still jaw-dropping to see a clip of that song in that movie.)

Perhaps wisely realizing that the story of “Hallelujah” alone wouldn’t be enough to fill two hours, Geller and Goldfine also delve into Cohen’s life and how it intersected with the rise, fall and revival of the song. His Sixties makeover from novelist and poet to thirtysomething songwriter is here, complete with fascinating period clips like the moment in 1966 when, while promoting one of his books on Canadian TV, he offered to also sing a song. A mesmerizing version of “The Stranger Song” becomes his startling musical coming-out. His life and breakup with Suzanne Elrod is touched upon, along with the making of his startling first album, his ill-fated collaboration with Phil Spector, his late Eighties comeback starting with I’m Your Man, his subsequent withdrawal to a Buddhist monastery and the cheered-on arena tours from roughly a decade ago that became his final act. There’s no mention of the innovative use of his music in McCabe and Mrs. Miller or his early Nineties hookup with Rebecca De Mornay, but we do hear from fashion photographer Dominique Issermann, who Cohen implies was the love of his life. Issermann still sounds baffled when she hears people refer to “Hallelujah” as being written by Buckley, whose wounded-angel rendition remains, along with Cale’s, the definitive versions.

In 2016, Frank Zappa was the subject of Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words, a terrific doc that consisted entirely of interview footage with one of rock’s smartest giants. Watching Hallelujah makes one yearn for a similar approach to Cohen. In interviews dating back to the Sixties — some with writer Larry “Ratso” Sloman, who initially interviewed Cohen in the mid Seventies for Rolling Stone — Cohen is his wily, deadpan, philosophical self. He refers to his likely “distinguished posthumous career” in light of his low record sales or muses that perhaps it was time people stopped singing “Hallelujah.” (Sloman disputes that, saying Cohen was likely joking.) The songwriter was almost as good at playing the media as Dylan was, as seen in a Sixties TV clip in which he claims, straight-faced and to a baffled host, that he considered changing his stage name to “September.”

Hallelujah isn’t a definitive, life-spanning doc on Cohen’s life, nor does it claim to be, but the tale of “Hallelujah” serves as a metaphor for Cohen’s life. The way he labored over the song is of a piece with the years he would take between albums, and “Hallelujah” itself encapsulates the way the solemn and the sensuous could each find a home in the same Cohen song. His pop-star makeover, from early in his career to later in life, was as unlikely as the song itself becoming part of the 20th century song canon. The movie makes it easy to imagine a future in which AI robots will be singing it to each other in the year 2350, no matter what’s left of the planet itself.

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