I’ll admit it. It wasn’t until the 82-year-old Leonard Cohen had died in 2016 (November 7th) did I really start paying attention to the fantastic quality of his music and lyrics. There were songs and albums that I acknowledged but, somehow, I didn’t quite get the body and breadth of this Canadian Jewish poet. The richness of his songs and the substance of his lyrics hadn’t fully caught my attention until after his death.
I never made it to a concert nor had an opportunity to interview him. I only encountered him tangentially. There was an interactive exhibit dedicated to Cohen’s life and career which opened on November 9, 2017 at Montreal’s contemporary art museum (MAC) entitled “Leonard Cohen: Une Brèche en Toute Chose/A Crack in Everything.” The exhibit had been in the works for several years prior to the Montreal born artist’s death, part of the official program of Montreal’s 375th anniversary. It broke museum’s attendance records in its five-month run. Then it embarked on an international tour, opening in New York City at the Jewish Museum in April 2019 — and I saw it shortly before it left NYC spending hours there.
Thanks to guitarist/sound stylist Gary Lucas, I came to understand Cohen’s impact on other musicians. Lucas often spoke of the late Jeff Buckley —his former collaborator and one-time band mate. They worked on some songs together that appeared on “Grace,” Buckley’s one full studio-produced release. And the singer/songwriter really got established posthumously through a powerful and touching rendition of “Hallelujah,” Cohen’s most enduring song.
I had listened to Buckley’s version numerous times and, though I appreciated his heartfelt rendition, I didn’t realize the huge back story to that song. Originally released on “Various Positions” —“Cohen’s 1984 album — Hallelujah” achieved little initial success. Then it developed a growing audience after achieving popular and critical acclaim through a version recorded by former Velvet Underground founder John Cale in 1991 for “I’m Your Fan” a Cohen tribute album. That inspired Buckley to record his version of Cale’s take in 1994.
I knew of author Alan Light’s 2012 book, “The Holy Or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of ‘Hallelujah.’” But it wasn’t until I recently saw “‘Hallelujah:’ Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song” at the Walter Reade Theater (part of Film at Lincoln Center), that I came to understand what I’d been missing. Building on Light’s book, the feature doc spotlights Cohen in a way that offers a perspective on an artist who in many ways was as creatively significant as Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan (who did a live version of the song himself and was friends with Cohen). As Light said somewhere, Cohen’s “approach to language and craft felt unlike the work of anybody else. The sound was rooted in poetry and literature because he studied as a poet and a novelist first.”
Cohen kept changing the song, eventually crafting as many as 180 possible verses to chose from, recorded several iterations (some more sexually suggestive than others) and performed variations of it live. After an edited version of Cale’s take was featured in the 2001 film “Shrek,” it landed on the multi-platinum-selling soundtrack release. Many other arrangements of “Hallelujah” have been performed in recordings and in concert, with over 300 versions known. The song has since been used in other film and television soundtracks and televised talent contests such as “American Idol.” Following Cohen’s death in November 2016, ”Hallelujah” enjoyed renewed interest. It appeared on many international singles charts, and entered the American Billboard Hot 100 for the first time.
But the film — directed by Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfire — is much more than simply detailing the evolution of the song and “Various Positions” — the album it first appeared on. Cohen’s seventh studio album was released in December 1984 (and February 1985) and marked not only his turn to a more modern sound with synthesizers, but also featured Jennifer Warnes’ harmonies and backing vocals — she’s credited equally to Cohen as vocalist on all of the tracks.
Produced by John Lissauer, the album was a glistening display of Cohen at his basic best after having done 1977’s “Death of a Ladies’ Man,” an over-produced recording with Phil Spector (Mr. Wall of Sound). Although it featured a more contemporary approach compared with the singer’s previous LPs, Columbia President Walter Yetnikoff didn’t think it was commercial enough and refused to release it in the States. That stuck in Cohen’s craw and affected his work for a long time.
All of this and much more is effectively detailed in the film. Interviews with those who knew him well such as Judy Collins (who popularized him through her 1966 cover of “Suzanne”) pop music chronicler Larry “Ratso” Sloman, Lissauer and others help establish who Cohen was and what informed his work such as his observant Jewish roots and the many women he had been with.
Said one of the film’s co-creators in an interview, “Cohen addressed the deepest of our human concerns about longing for connection and some sort of hope, transcendence and acknowledgment of the difficulties of life.”
As docs go, this one really does the job. While focused on the song as a doorway into who Cohen was, it sets us up for a fully realized story about an important creator.
Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song
Directors: Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfire
Cast: Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, John Cale, Larry “Ratso” Sloman, John Lissauer, Jeff Buckley, Judy Collins