Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song Movie Review

Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song

Sony Pictures Classics

Reviewed for Film Factual by Abe Friedtanzer

Director: Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine

Writer: Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine

Screened at: Critics’ link, LA, 1/4/23

Opens: July 1st, 2022

It’s hard to imagine a time when Leonard Cohen’s immortal song “Hallelujah” wasn’t universally-known. But Cohen himself is an interesting enigma, someone who shifted from a career as a poet and writer to a singer and songwriter in his late thirties. He was still performing throughout his seventies and into his eighties, releasing an album just weeks before he died. Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song traces the course of his career, spending particular time on that one song which has come to define his legacy more than anything.

Because Cohen died in 2016, there is an overflowing archive of footage that exists which charts most of his years. Seeing Cohen interviewed at different points from the 1960s through the 2010s is very enlightening, with the energy he exhibits staying relatively the same but conveying a deep passion for his music. Those he worked with who remain alive are also extensively featured, and they have plenty to say about the man he was and his musical process, one that was also not particularly conventional yet led to tremendous success.

It’s startling to learn that the album which included “Hallelujah” was initially not released in the United States due to the incoming CBS Records president’s belief that it wouldn’t be well-received. Even more interesting is how so many people came to the song, with many remembering that they first heard covers or performances by other artists and then only later learned that Cohen was its original writer. As time went on, the song soared to popularity after being featured in the film Shrek and being performed many times on competition talent shows.

The focus on this song also involves a look at Cohen’s religious background, coming from a Jewish family in Montreal and reconnecting with his spiritual roots through the study of Kabbalah. Another song that links Cohen to his heritage is “Who By Fire,” which is inspired by the liturgy of the Yom Kippur service that recounts the many ways in which people might die in a given year. Cohen’s engagement with his Judaism was hardly traditional, and his rabbi offers insight into the elements he found meaningful and how he sought to translate them into music.

It’s entertaining to learn of Cohen’s meeting with Bob Dylan where the two exchanged their respective techniques and timetables for songwriting, and there are a handful of present-day musicians who cite Cohen as an important influence, including Glen Hansard and Brandi Carlile. Those who have taken “Hallelujah” and other songs and reworked them acknowledge what they owe Cohen and also that their interpretations are their own, not reflective of the same values or experiences that led to him originally penning and recording them. 

It’s ultimately most rewarding to hear from those who knew and collaborated with Cohen during his most active years, remembering the humorous moments in which they saw his true personality and understood what drove him to make music. There are numerous clips that show him performing on stage, but this is not a concert film. It also can’t be a comprehensive biography because there’s too much of his forty-five-year career and his early life to cover, but it still captures a sense of who he is. Everyone surely has their own associations with “Hallelujah” and may or may not know more about the man who wrote it, and this film provides plentiful additional context in which to understand the enduring artist who, at one point in the film, jokes about how he’ll have a very successful posthumous career.

118 minutes

Story – B+

Technical – B+

Overall – B+

Sony Pictures Classics

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