If you draw breath on this Earth, you've almost certainly heard the song “Hallelujah.” It's played at weddings and funerals. It's been covered by multiple artists. It's a standard on singing competitions like American Idol. In fact, escaping the song over the past few years has been virtually impossible. The documentary Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song looks at how this tune has become ubiquitous in our society. Several other docs about Cohen exist. His life is certainly well-documented. This is an especially good one, because it gets to the heart of how a composition can touch millions.
The first section of the film provides general background about Cohen, the Canadian poet who decided to try music. Singer Judy Collins recounts how she convinced him to join her onstage, and how that appeared to light a spark. Cohen began writing and recording songs, his deep bass voice quickly attracting fans with its unique tone. In many ways, it was a natural progression, because his often profound lyrics set him apart from other singer-songwriters.
After that, we really get down to business. Hallelujah dives into the specifics of the song. It took seven years to write, and Cohen reportedly penned more than 150 verses over the years. Initially, it was about religion. Later he swapped out some lyrics to make it more about a sexual relationship. The record label refused to release the album that song was on, leading Cohen to sell it to an indie label that couldn't really promote it. “Hallelujah” was saved through several interpretations by other artists, from John Cale to Jeff Buckley, then reached a mass audience after yet another iteration ended up in the movie Shrek. That, oddly, was the factor that catapulted it to great heights.
Hallelujah has lots of interviews with musicians, friends of Cohen, and music business people who tell the story in great detail and/or offer perspective on why it has had such a significant impact. Clearly, part of the appeal is that each listener can project their own ideas onto it. Is it an inspirational song? A song of mourning? An expression of hope or despair? The answer depends on what you want to hear and, of course, which rendition you're listening to. Few popular songs have been as malleable as this one. Directors Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine liberally sprinkle in archival clips of Cohen discussing the song, plus his career in general. His comments offer additional insight into the creation of this striking composition.
At nearly two hours, Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song becomes a slight bit repetitive toward the end. However, the in-depth look at how the titular tune worked its way from obscurity to ubiquity is a testament to the power of music. In all honesty, I'd grown tired of “Hallelujah” from hearing it so often. After seeing this documentary, my appreciation has grown. Perhaps there is no greater compliment I could pay the film.
out of four
Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song is rated PG-13 for brief language and some sexual material. The running time is 1 hour and 55 minutes.