The Anatomy of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”

A new documentary by filmmakers Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller charts the unlikely success of Cohen’s signature song

Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song (Image: Sony Pictures Classics)

Leonard Cohen was an unusually deliberate artist, known for the protracted effort he put into his work.

In interviews, he often said he wrote hundreds of verses for every song, culling them down during the creative process, into the versions he recorded and performed. An unlikely pop star, he dressed like a businessman in suit and tie, both on stage and in many interviews. The theatrics he occasionally employed, like dropping to his knees in prayer, were minimal. In the early days of his career, the cover versions of his songs by artists like Judy Collins, Nina Simone and Joe Cocker, were often better known than his own. That slowly changed over the years, due to his frequent tours and the kudos other artists heaped upon him. 

 

VIDEO: Jeff Buckley “Hallelujah”

Cohen’s reputation took off once more in 1994, when Jeff Buckley released Cohen’s “Hallelujah” as a single. It went viral, with versions by John Cale and other singers adding to the song’s hip cachet. In 2001, the Cale version appeared in the cartoon hit Shrek. The song went viral again. The Shrek soundtrack sold over two million copies, embedding the song into the pop culture Pantheon.   

In Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song, filmmakers Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller trace the ascent of the song, from its composition to its current position as a standard sung at weddings, funerals and other sacred occasions. 

The filmmakers uncovered and assembled a wealth of film clips and old photos covering Cohen’s life, from his childhood in Westmount, Montreal to the months before his death. Cohen’s estate granted them access to photographs, concert recordings and archival materials, including his notebooks and journals. 

Goldfine and Geller use “Hallelujah” as the corner stone to explore his entire career. They investigate various aspects of his life through the words supplied by journalists, friends, co-workers and former lovers, focusing much of their attention on a few people:

Journalist Larry “Ratso” Sloman, who interviewed Cohen many times over the years and kept recordings and detailed notes of the conversations. He said Cohen mastered the act of “walking the tightrope between holiness and horniness.”  

John Lissauer, who is the producer of Various Positions, the album that included the first recorded version of “Hallelujah.” He tells us Columbia Records rejected the LP for its lack of commercial potential and refused to issue it in the United States. 

 

 

Sharon Robinson, who is a songwriter and friend, sang back up onstage with Cohen for years. She helped with the writing and production of Ten New Songs in 2001 and offered her perceptions of Cohen’s creative process.  

Then there’s Cohen himself, offering his own take on his work, with his usual balance of wit and sincerity:

“I don’t know where songs come from. If I did, I’d go there more often.” 

“After Columbia refused to release Various Positions, someone at the label called me up and told me – ‘We know you’re great, but we don’t know if you’re any good.’”

“I turned 70, which means I’m in the foothills of old age. I’m beginning to have visions of my posthumous career.” 

Fans of Cohen, even obsessive fans, will find much to like in the film and gain new insights into the mind that created a body of work that manages to bridge the gap between the sacred and profane.

Viewers less interested in Cohen’s music. however, may find it hard to sit still for the two hours the film takes to investigate every nuance of a single composition. 

 

VIDEO: Hallelujah film trailer 

 

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j. poet

j. poet has been writing about music for most of his adult life. He has contributed to the San Francisco Chronicle, East Bay Express, Harp, Paste, Grammy.com, PlanetOut.com, American Profile, Creem, Relix, Downbeat, Folk Roots, New Noise and more national and international publications and websites than he can remember. He wrote most of the Musichound Guide to World Music (Visible Ink, 2000) and had two stories in Best Rock Writing 2014 (That Devil Music). He has interviewed a wide spectrum of artists including Leonard Cohen, Merle Haggard and Godzilla. He lives in San Francisco. 

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