For a documentary to be worth your while, its subject needs to have historical weight. I think of some of the better documentaries or docuseries I’ve watched in recent years.
“Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen” was about one of the great movies of all time; “Woodstock 99” portrayed the ominous zeitgeist of the late 1990s; and “The Beatles: Get Back” showed the final days of an iconic band.
Going into “Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song,” I was not sure if Cohen, a Jewish musician defined by a single song, would fit into that category. Was this man important enough for me to spend two hours learning about?
By the second half of this Sony Pictures documentary, the answer was surprisingly yes.
Cohen was a vivid songwriter and a spiritual seeker who, with “Hallelujah” and its multiple versions and covers, captured something essential about the human experience. Who Cohen was, how he did that and why he was able to do it can be explained in three quotes from this movie, out nationwide on July 8.
“Leonard, we know you’re great, but we don’t know if you’re any good.”
According to Cohen in interview footage included in the film, this line was spoken to him by Walter Yetnikoff, the president of Columbia Records from 1975-1990. It was Yetnikoff who refused to put out the 1984 album “Various Positions” that included “Hallelujah” in the United States.
Yetnikoff didn’t like the mix, Cohen said in additional interview footage, and was convinced it wouldn’t sell. Before “Various Positions,” the singer-songwriter released five albums through Columbia Records. Yet the one that would include his greatest song was not even good enough to release.
The song and album, of course, came out in the United Kingdom, Canada and several other countries before becoming iconic in the U.S., too. But it was the type of classic that, through its many lives and recreations, from Jeff Buckley’s 1994 cover to its inclusion in the 2001 hit movie “Shrek” to Alexandra Burke’s UK chart-topping rendition from the reality show “The X Factor” in 2008, transcended a single album release and radio cycle.
This was true of Cohen, too. He never had an album reach No. 1 on the U.S. charts. He never won a Grammy Award until his lifetime achievement honor in 2010. He may not have been any good, but he was great.
“It evokes some of the most primitive human desires, and it marries it with a concept that so many of us struggle with, which is spirituality.”
Brandi Carlile, the critically-acclaimed singer-songwriter, is one of the best interviewees in this film. About 75 minutes in, she explains why Buckley’s cover of “Hallelujah” gets to her when she sums it up with the quote above.
Earlier in the documentary, another interviewee says a review he was reading described Cohen’s career as “pulled between holiness and horniness.” Pulled between the spiritual and the primitive, in other words.
His lyrics in “Hallelujah,” which dig into both the transcendent desire for spirituality and the primitive desire for human connection, connect these two desires more than any of his other songs, and perhaps more than any song. And in their unification, as Cohen, Buckley and so many others sing, we can only say Hallelujah.
“You’re getting things that are so deep and so resonant in your own spiritual journey that you are benefiting from his. And that’s of course the highest compliment to a poet or a songwriter.”
Another good interviewee is Judy Collins, the singer-songwriter whose career spans more than half a century. Collins knew Cohen in the 1960s before he was a singer — back when he was a poet. She recorded her version of a song Cohen wrote on one of her early albums.
In the line above, Collins explains why Cohen was able to marry the primitive and the spiritual. He was, to put it simply, a poet.
Cohen published four poetry collections and two novels between 1956 and 1966, before his first album, “Songs of Leonard Cohen,” came out in 1967. While you can’t really answer the question of why poets and prose writers write, as there’s a certain inherent value and beauty to creation, Collins’ quote above gets about as close as you can to doing so.
But really, as Collins herself was alluding to, the answer was in “Hallelujah” itself. It’s a song that, for a reason that’s hard to express, gets people to stand and cheer and feel, in place after place, decade after decade, from singer after singer.
The man who created that is well worth two hours of your time. JE