The Minor Fall, The Major Lift
DIRECTED BY DANIEL GELLER & DAYNA GOLDFINE/2022 (U.S. Theatrical Release)
The way that Leonard Cohen’s now-iconic hymn “Hallelujah” has become such a go-to needle-drop for so many movies, it’s only fitting that it finally gets its own movie all to itself. Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song is indeed a feature-length documentary about a single song. But what a song it is.
Resonating from its inception like the echo of some lucid meditation within darkened slumber, “Hallelujah” anthemically transverses the deepest and most profound aspects of the human soul. The song may be a puzzle, but it’s no riddle. Hiding in plain sight among its words of love, longing, and angst are contorting variations on prayer in all its forms. Lament. Connection. Loss. Ecstasy. Mourning. Memory. Splendor. Worship. Praise. One would be forgiven for thinking that it’s been around forever. It’s jarring to process the fact that the song was only recorded in 1984.
It’s even harder to believe that it, as part of the album it was initially a part of (Cohen’s Various Positions) went unheard and ignored, in part because Cohen’s label Columbia wasn’t pleased with the overall release, opting not to promote it. The film tells the story of the song’s unlikely subsequent ascension and how its multiple permutations (well beyond Cohen’s own later reworking) helped cement it into the cultural consciousness. Prior to all that, it was merely dozens and dozens of hard-won verses (estimates range up to 180) realized by their author over the course of nearly a decade.
Not many songs could sustain an entire movie, or vice versa. Yet we never tire of “Hallelujah” in the course of Hallelujah. Taking on the standard interviews/archival footage documentary format, this film, though fully competent and always compelling, never breaks new formal ground. But then, neither did its subject matter. Cohen always slotted into pre-existing musical movements to best exploit whatever poetic journey he was on. And, ever enigmatic, he was always on at least one such journey. A moving target to the end, that one.
Adding to the challenge taken on by filmmakers Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine, this is far from the first documentary film focused on Leonard Cohen. Rather recently, there was Nick Broomfield’s Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love (2019). That one focused on the folksier early portion of Cohen’s career. Hallelujah essentially picks up where that one left off and takes us to the end of his life in 2016.
Logically, Geller and Goldfine pull liberally from other previous docs, such as Lian Lunson’s 2005 piece, Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man, which includes the ever-dapper poet/songwriter/“ladies man” as a participant. They also dig much deeper, weaving in rarer archival clips and images, as well as giving voice to some of the most prominent re-interpreters of “Hallelujah”. These include Brandi Carlile, Eric Church, and Rufus Wainwright. Other prominent talking heads include early Cohen champion Judy Collins, longtime collaborator Sharon Robinson, Shrek co-director Vicky Jensen (who ushered the song into the 2000 animated hit), songwriter Glen Hansard, performing artist Amanda Palmer, and various journalists and critics.
As the film demonstrates without blatantly stating, we’ve become saturated with this song. Between its appropriation in umpteen movies and television shows and the hundreds of live cover versions and re-imaginings, it’s fair to say we’ve hit peak “Hallelujah” several years ago. Cohen himself is shown gently suggesting that folks maybe give the song a rest for a while. But how can we truly declare a moratorium on a piece of music and poetry that we so obviously need?
Every mindful singer understands the need to have their own shot at those words while at the same time, on paper, the last thing the world needs is yet another cover of “Hallelujah”. Yet, the beaconing takeaway of this documentary is that if “Hallelujah” can sustain its own feature-length examination, having been charted, dissected, analyzed, and lauded, and we come away not tired of it… that’s something. That’s something very special. Very powerful.
But you don’t really care for music, do ya?