Friday, July 15, 2022

film review: Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Song, A Journey


Directed by Dan Geller & Dayna Goldfine

ChinoKino score: A-

Review by Allan Tong

There are many songs, but only a few become hits, and one or two endure as anthems. Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah is an unlikely anthem. This captivating new documentary charts the song's unlikely path to immortality and details its creator's lifelong conflict between sex and spirituality that birthed Hallelujah.

That birth nearly didn't happen. The 1984 album that Hallelujah appeared on, Various Positions, wasn't good enough to be sold in the United States. That was the verdict of Columbia Records' chief, Walter Yetnikoff who explained to the poet-singer: "Leonard, we know you're great, but don't know if you're any good." The album eventually surfaced on a smaller label in the U.S. and Hallelujah would find its way into Bob Dylan's set list. More importantly, John Cale, the co-founder of the legendary Velvet Underground, covered it in a plaintive, yet moving version on the 1991 tribute album, I'm Your Fan.

Cale's versions reached some important ears. Another hero of this story is Jeff Buckley who covered Hallelujah in the only album recorded in his short life. With his angelic voice and moving delivery, Buckley's version inspired countless other musicians, including U2, who popularized Hallelujah even further. Then, an unlikely appearance of Cale's cover in the hit animated film, Shrek, made Hallelujah mega. From there on, Cohen's song about tortured love illustrated with Biblical imagery appeared on countless singing TV contests, weddings and funerals.

This documentary tells this incredible story, based on thorough research, insightful interviews and plenty of archival footage to illustrate Cohen's five-decade career. Buckley and Cale are seen performing the anthem. Cohen's friends, former lovers and associates shed light on Cohen's character and working method. There's journalist Larry "Ratso" Sloman who spoke to Cohen several times since the former's mid-1970's Rolling Stone profile; Canadian former Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson who was the first to interview Cohen on TV (CBC in 1966); folk singer Judy Collins who gave him an early break; Cohen's record producer John Lissauer who quit the business after Yetnikoff's inexplicable rejection; later collaborator Sharon Robinson; Dominique Issermann who was Cohen's lover during the time he wrote and recorded Hallelujah; and admirers and fellow musicians Glen Hansard and Brandi Carlile. Cohen himself gave his blessing to this film two years before his 2016 death, and his estate his supplied archival materials including audio and a glimpse of the poet's notebooks.

If there is a flaw in this fine film it's that it tells too much of Cohen's story. It over-reaches. The documentary tries to be an extensive biography while chronicling the evolution from Hallelujah from obscure album cut to global anthem. There's too much backstory about Cohen's early career which slows the film's momentum and loses focus. Including Cohen's 1976 collaboration with homicidal Phil Spector record producer is unnecessary. The film's theme--and Cohen's lifelong inner conflict--of sex vs. spirituality is clear, but drops out periodically when the movie strays.

That said, these diversions are well-done, and the nearly two-hour film remains engrossing. Because the documentary was authorized by Cohen and his estate, the inevitable question is, What does it leave out? Not much. Cohen's legal battle with a former manager are included here (and well-known). Cohen alludes to depression in his life, but that is also well known. Fortunately, the film is not an hagiography as so many music docs are, though there's no shortage of praise for Cohen. Overall, this is a must-see film for devotees of the Montreal bard and of popular music.

Hallelujah will be released in cinemas across Canada on July 15.

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