Hallelujah, the Hebrew word of praise for the Lord, is all over the Old Testament. How strange, but how very typical of our contemporary neediness and confusion, that Leonard Cohen’s song of that name should have become a secular pop anthem for our times.
Daniel Geller and Dayna Golding’s innovative documentary, Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song, brings us a biography of the singer in relation to a single composition that took years to write, and would go on to have a life of its own. The filmmakers were fortunate in having a roadmap to follow in Alan Light’s book of 2012, The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of ‘Hallelujah’, soon to be reissued in an updated edition. Their greatest obstacles were the licencing fees and agreements required to include more than twenty of Cohen’s songs, along with archival footage of interviews and concerts.
This is the third documentary about Cohen to appear since his death in 2016. It has less to say about the singer’s tortuous love life and more about his lifelong spiritual search that would reach a crisis in 1994, when he entered a Zen monastery on Mount Baldy, 70 kms north-west of Los Angeles, where he would remain for the following six years.
Those few comments we hear about Cohen’s private life are like miniature explosions. Judy Collins, who encouraged his early efforts as a singer-songwriter, says “I knew dangerous when I saw it.” When Rolling Stone veteran, Larry ‘Ratso’ Sloman asks Cohen about his first love, he says – despite a long line of failed relationships – that he never knew love until the age of 50. That was when he met French fashion photographer, Dominique Issermann, his last great passion.
The overall impression we take away from this film is immensely positive. Cohen is presented as an intelligent, warm and humorous personality who kept his personal demons at bay until he could no longer withstand the clamour in his mind.
The song, Hallelujah was a product of that inner struggle. Cohen began performing it in 1983, but he relates, almost shamefully, how ithad been in the making for about seven years. According to Ratso, he confessed to writing 150, maybe 180 verses, most of them still to be found within his notebooks, which remain the property of his estate.
Talking with Bob Dylan one day, Cohen admitted it had taken years to write the song, although he was unwilling to say exactly how many years. When asked how long it had taken him to write the song I and I, Dylan said it was 15 minutes in the back of a cab.
There are so many stories about record companies rejecting performers who went on to become famous, or turning down songs that became all-time hits, this has become a cliché. The most notorious recent example is the record company boss turning down Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody in the movie of the same name. The filmmakers even concocted an imaginary record executive played by Mike Myers, to draw every bit of pathos from the scene.
Geller and Golding didn’t have to make up anything. Cohen had been unhappy with the album, Death of a Ladies Man (1977), which had been produced by Phil Spector and given the signature ‘wall of sound’ treatment. In 1984 he turned to his old friend, John Lissauer to produce Various Positions, a collection of quieter, more subtle songs. Both men were extremely pleased with the album, but it did nothing for the new head of Columbia Records, Walter Yetnikoff, who rejected it with the immortal words: “Leonard, we know you’re great, we just don’t know if you’re any good.”
The album was not released in the United States until taken up by a small, obscure label, and would sell only a few thousand copies. Hallelujah, the song that had cost Cohen so many years of toil and anxiety, was buried along with the record.
Cohen would continue to perform the song on stage, where it was heard one night by John Cale, the musical brains behind the Velvet Underground, and a solo artist of formidable ability. When invited to contribute a cover version to the Leonard Cohen tribute album, I’m Your Man (1988), Cale selected Hallelujah, which had stayed lodged in his mind.
Cale’s first task was to sift through the ever-changing lyrics Cohen had been using, creating a hybrid of the sacred and the secular. King David is still there, (“I’ve heard there was a secret chord, that David played, and it pleased the Lord…”) but there are also strong sexual overtones (“There was a time when you let me know what’s really going in below…”). He performed a sparse, haunting version of the song, accompanying himself on piano. It would be this version that launched the song on his its illustrious career.
Cale’s cover came to the attention of Jeff Buckley, son of the legendary singer, Tim Buckley (1947-75). At that stage the younger Buckley was just starting to make a name for himself, but his heartfelt version of Hallelujah would rocket him to stardom. The singer’s early death by drowning, in 1997 at the age of only 30, gave Buckley’s rendition an added force that it has never lost. However, the single biggest factor in the song’s rise to iconic status would be its inclusion in the animated film, Shrek (2001), which became the second-highest grossing feature of the year. After Shrek and Buckley, the song started appearing everywhere.
One meets a lot of people who rave over the Buckley version, but for me nothing beats John Cale’s Hallelujah, not even Cohen’s original. The sparse, simple nature of the performance brings out every nuance of a song that blurs the line between the spiritual and the sexual, or to put it in more philosophical terms, between the mind and the body.
Compared to Cale, every other performer – and this documentary has dozens of them – sounds mannered and hystrionic. This might even be said of the Buckley version, which is a masterpiece of restraint alongside most of the other covers. This applies, not only to the numerous versions aired on talent shows and public occasions, but even to K.D. Lang’s performance in a memorial concert for Cohen. The voice is amazing, but too big for the song. The chorus, in particular, sounds as if it were being sung through a megaphone.
The mania for Hallelujah reached its apogee in 2008 when, three versions went rocketing up the charts, including Cohen’s own, 24 years after it first appeared. The song’s hymn-like, singalong nature has made it into one of the most all-purpose numbers of all time, used to invest any occasion with a touch of the sacred. Although overtly sexual, it’s often performed at funerals and memorials. It tells of a broken relationship but is regularly used at weddings. By the estimation of Alan Light, the chronicler of the song, there are now as many as 800 versions, which is pretty scary.
Perhaps the most touching part of this film is the footage of Cohen on stage, during his late comeback in his 70s and then his 80s. He toured the world tirelessly, performing for three hours on stage with a full band, addressing crowds with a intimacy that few audience members have experienced before or since. His voice at times was no more than a whisper, but thousands of people would listen with the greatest intensity. If ever a popular singer could be said to be touched with grace, this was the surely the moment.
Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song
Written & directed by Daniel Geller & Dayna Golding
Starring: Leonard Cohen, Larry ‘Ratso’ Sloman , Adrienne Clarkson, Judy Collins, John Lissauer, Sharon Robinson, Nancy Bacal, Domique Issermann, Clive Davis, Mordecai Finley, Glen Hansard
USA, rated M, 118 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 16 July, 2022