Skip to main content

'Hallelujah': Leonard Cohen doc traces the man, the myth, the song


An unlikely confluence of events made Leonard Cohen's 1984 single 'Hallelujah' bigger than anyone could have ever imagined.

Leonard Cohen is more than "Hallelujah," and "Hallelujah" is more than Leonard Cohen. But the song is used as a means to explore Cohen's life and legacy in "Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song," an engrossing portrait of an artist through the lens of his most famous and enduring work.  

Filmmakers Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine, working from Alan Light's 2011 book "The Holy or the Broken," dig up archival interviews with Cohen and talk to those who worked with him and those who were inspired by him to get to the heart of the Canadian poet, gravelly-voiced singer and songwriter, whose 1984 confessional took on an amazing life of its own. 

As is often the case with works of greatness, "Hallelujah" almost never was. After seven years of workshopping, the song was included on Cohen's seventh album, "Various Positions," which was then shelved by his record company in the U.S.

The song existed in semi-obscurity until the Velvet Underground's John Cale covered it on a 1991 Cohen tribute album, and that version went on to be famously covered by Jeff Buckley in 1994. After Buckley's death in 1997, "Hallelujah" took on new life and was eventually traced back to its source, who had spent much of the 1990s living in seclusion at a Zen monastery. 

Geller and Goldfine go back through Cohen's history, through his early career and his fraught sessions with Phil Spector to arrive at the place where "Hallelujah" was conceived. They then track the story of both "Hallelujah" — which would go on to be included in the first "Shrek" and covered by seemingly every contestant on every televised singing competition in history — and Cohen who, in 2008 at age 74, mounted a hugely successful world tour that acted as a capper on his legendary career. 

There's lots of rich material to dig into here, and viewers come away with a clear understanding of Cohen as well as the second (and third, and fourth, and fifth) life of "Hallelujah." Turns out Shrek has pretty good taste. 

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama

'Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song'

GRADE: B+

Rated PG-13: for brief strong language and some sexual material

Running time: 117 minutes

In theaters